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SotW: Check Consequentialism

38 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 March 2012 01:35AM

(The Exercise Prize series of posts is the Center for Applied Rationality asking for help inventing exercises that can teach cognitive skills.  The difficulty is coming up with exercises interesting enough, with a high enough hedonic return, that people actually do them and remember them; this often involves standing up and performing actions, or interacting with other people, not just working alone with an exercise booklet and a pencil.  We offer prizes of $50 for any suggestion we decide to test, and $500 for any suggestion we decide to adopt.  This prize also extends to LW meetup activities and good ideas for verifying that a skill has been acquired.  See here for details.)

Exercise Prize:  Check Consequentialism

In philosophy, "consequentialism" is the belief that doing the right thing makes the world a better place, i.e., that actions should be chosen on the basis of their probable outcomes.  It seems like the mental habit of checking consequentialism, asking "What positive future events does this action cause?", would catch numerous cognitive fallacies.

For example, the mental habit of consequentialism would counter the sunk cost fallacy - if a PhD wouldn't really lead to much in the way of desirable job opportunities or a higher income, and the only reason you're still pursuing your PhD is that otherwise all your previous years of work will have been wasted, you will find yourself encountering a blank screen at the point where you try to imagine a positive future outcome of spending another two years working toward your PhD - you will not be able to state what good future events happen as a result.

Or consider the problem of living in the should-universe; if you're thinking, I'm not going to talk to my boyfriend about X because he should know it already, you might be able to spot this as an instance of should-universe thinking (planning/choosing/acting/feeling as though within / by-comparison-to an image of an ideal perfect universe) by having done exercises specifically to sensitize you to should-ness.  Or, if you've practiced the more general skill of Checking Consequentialism, you might notice a problem on asking "What happens if I talk / don't talk to my boyfriend?" - providing that you're sufficiently adept to constrain your consequentialist visualization to what actually happens as opposed to what should happen.


The skill of Checking Consequentialism isn't quite as simple as telling people to ask, "What positive result do I get?"  By itself, this mental query is probably going to return any apparent justification - for example, in the sunk-cost-PhD example, asking "What good thing happens as a result?" will just return, "All my years of work won't have been wasted!  That's good!"  Any choice people are tempted by seems good for some reason, and executing a query about "good reasons" will just return this.

The novel part of Checking Consequentialism is the ability to discriminate "consequentialist reasons" from "non-consequentialist reasons" - being able to distinguish that "Because a PhD gets me a 50% higher salary" talks about future positive consequences, while "Because I don't want my years of work to have been wasted" doesn't.

It's possible that asking "At what time does the consequence occur and how long does it last?" would be useful for distinguishing future-consequences from non-future-consequences - if you take a bad-thing like "I don't want my work to have been wasted" and ask "When does it occur, where does it occur, and how long does it last?", you will with luck notice the error.

Learning to draw cause-and-effect directed graphs, a la Judea Pearl and Bayes nets, seems like it might be helpful - at least, Geoff was doing this while trying to teach strategicness and the class seemed to like it.

Sometimes non-consequentialist reasons can be rescued as consequentialist ones.  "You shouldn't kill because it's the wrong thing to do" can be rescued as "Because then a person will transition from 'alive' to 'dead' in the future, and this is a bad event" or "Because the interval between Outcome A and Outcome B includes the interval from Fred alive to Fred dead."

On a five-second level, the skill would have to include:

  • Being cued by some problem to try looking at the consequences;
  • Either directly having a mental procedure that only turns up consequences, like trying to visualize events out into the future, or
  • First asking 'Why am I doing this?' and then looking at the justifications to check if they're consequentialist, perhaps using techniques like asking 'How long does it last?', 'When does it happen?', or 'Where does it happen?'.
  • Expending a small amount of effort to see if a non-consequentialist reason can easily translate into a consequentialist one in a realistic way.
  • Making the decision whether or not to change your mind.
  • If necessary, detaching from the thing you were doing for non-consequentialist reasons.

In practice, it may be obvious that you're making a mistake as soon as you think to check consequences.  I have 'living in the should-universe' or 'sunk cost fallacy' cached to the point where as soon as I spot an error of that pattern, it's usually pretty obvious (without further deliberative thought) what the residual reasons are and whether I was doing it wrong.

Pain points & Pluses:

(When generating a candidate kata, almost the first question we ask - directly after the selection of a topic, like 'consequentialism' - is, "What are the pain points?  Or pleasure points?"  This can be errors you've made yourself and noticed afterward, or even cases where you've noticed someone else doing it wrong, but ideally cases where you use the skill in real life.  Since a lot of rationality is in fact about not screwing up, there may not always be pleasure points where the skill is used in a non-error-correcting, strictly positive context; but it's still worth asking each time.  We ask this question right at the beginning because it (a) checks to see how often the skill is actually important in real life and (b) provides concrete use-cases to focus discussion of the skill.)

Pain points:

Checking Consequentialism looks like it should be useful for countering:

  • Living in the should-universe (taking actions because of the consequences they ought to have, rather than the consequences they probably will have).  E.g., "I'm not going to talk to my girlfriend because she should already know X" or "I'm going to become a theoretical physicist because I ought to enjoy theoretical physics."
  • The sunk cost fallacy (choosing to prevent previously expended, non-recoverable resources from having been wasted in retrospect - i.e., avoiding the mental pain of reclassifying a past investment as a loss - rather than acting for the sake of future considerations).  E.g., "If I give up on my PhD, I'll have wasted the last three years."
  • Cached thoughts and habits; "But I usually shop at Whole Foods" or "I don't know, I've never tried an electric toothbrush before."  (These might have rescuable consequences, but as stated, they aren't talking about future events.)
  • Acting-out an emotion - one of the most useful pieces of advice I got from Anna Salamon was to find other ways to act out an emotion than strategic choices.  If you're feeling frustrated with a coworker, you might still want to Check Consequentialism on "Buy them dead flowers for their going-away party" even though it seems to express your frustration.
  • Indignation / acting-out of morals - "Drugs are bad, so drug use ought to be illegal", where it's much harder to make the case that countries which decriminalized marijuana experienced worse net outcomes.  (Though it should be noted that you also have to Use Empiricism to ask the question 'What happened to other countries that decriminalized marijuana?' instead of making up a gloomy consequentialist prediction to express your moral disapproval.)
  • Identity - "I'm the sort of person who belongs in academia."
  • "Trying to do things" for simply no reason at all, while your brain still generates activities and actions, because nobody ever told you that behaviors ought to have a purpose or that lack of purpose is a warning sign.  This habit can be inculcated by schoolwork, wanting to put in 8 hours before going home, etc.  E.g. you "try to write an essay", and you know that an essay has paragraphs; so you try to write a bunch of paragraphs but you don't have any functional role in mind for each paragraph.  "What is the positive consequence of this paragraph?" might come in handy here.

(This list is not intended to be exhaustive.)

Pleasure points:

  • Being able to state and then focus on a positive outcome seems like it should improve motivation, at least in cases where the positive outcome is realistically attainable to a non-frustrating degree and has not yet been subject to hedonic adaptation.  E.g., a $600 job may be more motivating if you visualize the $600 laptop you're going to buy with the proceeds.

Also, consequentialism is the foundation of expected utility, which is the foundation of instrumental rationality - this is why we're considering it as an early unit.  (This is not directly listed as a "pleasure point" because it is not directly a use-case.)

Constantly asking about consequences seems likely to improve overall strategicness - not just lead to the better of two choices being taken from a fixed decision-set, but also having goals in mind that can generate new perceived choices, i.e., improve the overall degree to which people do things for reasons, as opposed to not doing things or not having reasons.  (But this is a hopeful eventual positive consequence of practicing the skill, not a use-case where the skill is directly being applied.)

Teaching & exercises:

This is the part that's being thrown open to Less Wrong generally.  Hopefully I've described the skill in enough detail to convey what it is.  Now, how would you practice it?  How would you have an audience practice it, hopefully in activities carried out with each other?

The dumb thing I tried to do previously was to have exercises along the lines of, "Print up a booklet with little snippets of scenarios in them, and ask people to circle non-consequentialist reasoning, then try to either translate it to consequentialist reasons or say that no consequentialist reasons could be found."  I didn't do that for this exact session, but if you look at what I did with the sunk cost fallacy, it's the same sort of silly thing I tried to do.

This didn't work very well - maybe the exercises were too easy, or maybe it was that people were doing it alone, or maybe we did something else wrong, but the audience appeared to experience insufficient hedonic return.  They were, in lay terms, unenthusiastic.

At this point I should like to pause, and tell a recent and important story.  On Saturday I taught an 80-minute unit on Bayes's Rule to an audience of non-Sequence-reading experimental subjects, who were mostly either programmers or in other technical subjects, so I could go through the math fairly fast.  Afterward, though, I was worried that they hadn't really learned to apply Bayes's Rule and wished I had a small little pamphlet of practice problems to hand out.  I still think this would've been a good idea, but...

On Wednesday, I attended Andrew Critch's course at Berkeley, which was roughly mostly-instrumental LW-style cognitive-improvement material aimed at math students; and in this particular session, Critch introduced Bayes's Theorem, not as advanced math, but with the aim of getting them to apply it to life.

Critch demonstrated using what he called the Really Getting Bayes game.  He had Nisan (a local LWer) touch an object to the back of Critch's neck, a cellphone as it happened, while Critch faced in the other direction; this was "prior experience".  Nisan said that the object was either a cellphone or a pen.  Critch gave prior odds of 60% : 40% that the object was a cellphone vs. pen, based on his prior experience.  Nisan then asked Critch how likely he thought it was that a cellphone or a pen would be RGB-colored, i.e., colored red, green, or blue.  Critch didn't give exact numbers here, but said he thought a cellphone was more likely to be primary-colored, and drew some rectangles on the blackboard to illustrate the likelihood ratio.  After being told that the object was in fact primary-colored (the cellphone was metallic blue), Critch gave posterior odds of 75% : 25% in favor of the cellphone, and then turned around to look.

Then Critch broke up the class into pairs and asked each pair to carry out a similar operation on each other:  Pick two plausible objects and make sure you're holding at least one of them, touch it to the other person while they face the other way, prior odds, additional fact, likelihood ratio, posterior odds.

This is the sort of in-person, hands-on, real-life, and social exercise that didn't occur to me, or Anna, or anyone else helping, while we were trying to design the Bayes's Theorem unit.  Our brains just didn't go in that direction, though we recognized it as embarrassingly obvious in retrospect.

So... how would you design an exercise to teach Checking Consequentialism?

Comments (311)

Comment author: Axel 24 March 2012 03:01:50PM 23 points [-]

So... how would you design an exercise to teach Checking Consequentialism?

I would check to see if such a thing already exists or if there are people who have experience designing such things. I know of a Belgian non-profit 'Center for Informative Games' that not only rents games designed to teach certain skills but will also help you create your own.

From their site: On request C.I.S. develops games for others. The applicant provides the content of the game, while C.I.S. develops the conceptual and game technical part to perfection. The applicant has the opportunity to attend some game tests and to redirect when necessary.

They also offer coaching if you want to work on your own: Do you want to create a game concept on your own, but you don't know where to start? No worries C.I.S. can give you a hand. During a number of concrete working sessions C.I.S. facilitates your development. In between sessions the applicant continues the work to, finally, end up with a solid game.

I have enjoyed their games in the past and can attest to their quality. The obvious problem is that it's a purely Belgian organization and the 'search' function only works with Dutch words. However if you want to check them out I'd be happy to act as a go-between. Since a couple of months there is even a Brussels LW meetup, I'm certain I could get a couple of members to help in the production process (again, if this seems interesting)

Comment author: HonoreDB 25 March 2012 05:31:27AM *  19 points [-]

In a group, with a leader who knows the exercise:

Get a volunteer to act as a judge (or a few to act as a jury, in a large group). Have her leave the room. The leader presents the rest with a short set of Contrived Hypothetical Situations, each with finite options and either clearly-defined outcomes for each option, or a probabilistic distribution of outcomes for each option. The leader says, "Please write down your choice for each problem, sign your paper, and turn it in to me. Then I'll call in the judge, and have her decide on each problem. You get a point wherever her decision agrees with yours. The winner is the one with the most points." When the judge is called in, however, the leader doesn't tell them the actual problems. Rather, the leader just reports the outcomes (or distributions), and asks them to choose which outcome or distribution is best. The winners are announced based on that.

Example: One of the situations given is some variant of the trolley problem. When the judge comes in, she is just asked whether she'd prefer one person to get hit by a trolley, or five. Everybody laughs as she replies "...one?"

Example: The problem given to the group is "You drive 45 minutes away from home to go to a new restaurant for dinner. When you get there, you discover that you dislike the ambience and the selection is poor. You remember that you have decent leftovers at home. You're mildly hungry. Do you try the restaurant anyway (25-minute wait, 10% very enjoyable meal, 10% decent meal, 80% unenjoyable meal) or just head back home (5-minute-prep once you get home, 100% chance decent meal)?" The problem given to the judge is "You're mildly hungry. In 25 minutes, you can have a meal that is (10% very enjoyable, 10% decent, 80% unenjoyable). Or, in 50 minutes, you can have a guaranteed decent meal."

Comment author: JKR 03 April 2012 07:20:21PM 2 points [-]

I think this is a fantastic idea, with a patch that is much easier than those suggested by the other responses. Simply tell everyone that for the purposes of this exercise, only that information directly presented in the example is to be considered. People sometimes overlook relevant information or clever third options, and these situations are to be judged only based on the data being considered by the hypothetical person in the given scenario.

If there is any concern about this set up encouraging people to think about things with an insufficient amount of thoroughness, you can save some time at the end for a just-for-fun period where everyone gets to offer their clever workarounds and extra information that would have changed what the proper decision was, had it been considered.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 March 2012 07:30:48PM 1 point [-]

Two details the judge isn't told about are 1) you would have to pay for the former meal, but not for the latter, and 2) if you stay in the restaurant, you gain useful information you'll be able to take in account the next time you might want to eat there.

Comment author: HonoreDB 26 March 2012 03:33:03PM 1 point [-]

1) is patchable by specifying that the leftovers are non-perishable, so eating them is equivalent to buying a meal.

2) Either the judge is told that the variable meal is repeatable if it's good, or we specify in the group problem that you're not going back there no matter what.

Comment author: AspiringKnitter 03 April 2012 07:44:37PM 0 points [-]

Couldn't the problems others have brought up regarding this scenario be fixed by specifying that this is your last meal ever before the world ends tomorrow morning before breakfast? Then neither information nor money is valuable anymore.

Comment author: dlthomas 03 April 2012 07:59:45PM 0 points [-]

I think I'd make a decision other than "try that new restaurant on the outskirts of town" for the evening before the world ends. If I don't know the world is going to end, then my decision now mightn't be optimal in light of that additional information (maybe that still tests something interesting, but it isn't quite the same thing).

Comment author: AspiringKnitter 04 April 2012 02:59:51AM 0 points [-]

Hmm. That could be a good point. If the world were ending, I probably wouldn't waste time on a sit-down meal.

How about if it's your last day in the country and you'll be fleeing to escape religious persecution tomorrow, taking nothing with you?

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 27 March 2012 04:04:05PM *  11 points [-]

Not attempting to answer the question, but I've been nursing a thought about the rationality org that might be useful: The nearby Stanford University has a world-renown program in "decision sciences" http://decision.stanford.edu/ which is basically "how to make decisions scientifically"; they virtually invented influence diagrams, they teach biases as a part of the program, etc. The head of the program, Ronald Howard, also co-founded http://www.decisioneducation.org/ , his teen-oriented "rationality org".

  • there is probably things to learn from both

  • if "rationality org" has a value proposition to these organizations they can be useful in teaching opportunities and for credibility building

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 March 2012 11:16:15PM 3 points [-]

These do indeed sound like people to talk to, and local too - thanks!

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 31 March 2012 02:31:17PM 0 points [-]

The other guy to talk to (unless you decide to strategically approach younger faculty) is Ross Shachter, inventor of bayes-ball algorithm and some other interesting AI papers.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 30 March 2012 01:06:17AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: Incorrect 30 March 2012 03:39:58AM 1 point [-]

A comma broke one of the links in your post.

Comment author: handoflixue 03 April 2012 12:12:40AM 10 points [-]

I am reminded of a game we played in elementary school:

There are 100 pieces of candy in a jar, and 20 students. Each student gets to vote "share" or "selfish". If EVERYONE votes to share, the candy is split evenly. If ONE person votes "selfish", they get all the candy. If MORE than one person votes "selfish", no one gets candy, and the experiment is repeated until either the candy is distributed, or X iterations (3-5 seems normal) have passed.

Before each iteration, the students are allowed to discuss strategy. The solution, of course, is for a single trustworthy person to make a binding commitment to vote "selfish" and then evenly distribute the candy. By pre-commiting to vote "selfish", everyone else knows that voting "selfish" themselves will result in no candy - unlike a commitment to have everybody share.

I've always considered it a decent test of group rationality and social skills whether or not this consensus actually gets reached before the final iteration. I've seen groups that hit on this, had a single iteration with a few outliers testing it just to be sure that the person would really vote "selfish" like they said, and then implementing the strategy. I've seen others where 10-20% of the audience simply would not believe the person who made the pre-commitment, and so there was never a successful iteration

Comment author: TheOtherDave 03 April 2012 12:48:50AM 0 points [-]

This all hinges on trusting the supposedly trustworthy person, of course.

Comment author: handoflixue 03 April 2012 08:30:08PM 0 points [-]

Yes, but this being a school setting, "I made a promise to the teacher" is usually considered sufficiently binding. For a more advanced level of rationality, I'd say that coming up with a plausibly binding commitment strategy would be part of the challenge :)

Comment author: Furslid 24 March 2012 09:14:31PM *  10 points [-]

An important question to ask that you are leaving out is "What are my alternatives to this course of action?"

The comparison of consequences requires an alternative set of consequences to compare to. Considering the question "Should I be in graduate school?" The answer may well be different if the alternative is getting a decent job than if the alternative is starving unemployment.

The listing of alternatives also helps catch cheating. If the alternative is implausible and disastrous (Stay in grad school or be a hobo) then it is likely that Checking Consequentialism isn't being done seriously.. The alternative compared needs to be a serious answer to the question "What would I do if I couldn't/wouldn't do this?"

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2012 08:08:42AM *  5 points [-]

I think an "Improv to Rationality" class would be very fun and interesting. I don't know how WELL the games would work to teach the desired skills, but I definitely think it would make the lessons more memorable, AND you'd be able to add the phrase "Team-Building" to your class description. You can sell anything if you promote it as "Team-Building." :P

A game that would teach how to look for alternative options (see parent) could be "New Choice". In this game, a scene is played out, with the moderator occasionally demanding a new choice(s) from the players. (Video Example (includes 15 sec commercial)).

Not only would it teach about not becoming too set on a current course of action, but could have the lesson of: "When thinking up alternative actions, don't just stop at one or two. Instead imagine a moderator yelling "New Choice!" at you. Keep thinking up new alternatives until you get to crazy-land (i.e. "Here's a cat from my pants")

Another sub-skill mentioned, was the ability to recognize bad rationalizations (i.e. "I will feel bad if I quit something I put so much effort into."). Perhaps one way to learn to recognize these, is to do bad rationalization ON PURPOSE, to see what it feels like. A good game for that is "Challenge in a Minute".

In this game, a two-sided silly debate is chosen, such as pirates v. ninjas, or Coke v. Pepsi. All the players line up and challenge each other's arguments. Arguments are supposed to start somewhat seriously ("Ninjas are sneakier") and devolve over the course of the game ("I don't like his pants"). (It's easier to just watch a video, than explain the rules.)

Participants could then brainstorm what it felt like to come up with the bad rationalizations. I would expect answers like: Grasping at straws, Searching your brain for things to support your position, Being proud of clever retorts, etc. Participants could then ACTUALLY try to answer the debate question (ninja v. pirates, or whatever) in teams, and then discuss what it felt like to actually try to find the answer. I would expect answers like: Defining the problem, Not knowing the answer, Looking for sources, Being willing to change my mind (debate question must be sufficiently silly that most people would be willing to change their mind.)

Note: I'll admit that I worked backwards for this. Instead of thinking "What's the best way to teach consequentialism?", I thought "It would be awesome to do an Improv Rationality class. How can I relate some improv games to the lessons we're trying to teach?" So this solution probably isn't optimal.,..But it IS fun!

Comment author: wedrifid 29 March 2012 12:23:09PM -2 points [-]

Being proud of clever retorts, etc. Participants could then ACTUALLY try to answer the debate question (ninja v. pirates, or whatever) in teams, and then discuss what it felt like to actually try to find the answer.

Short exercise. Does anyone actually think pirates stand a chance against professionally trained assassins? I thought the only reason people defend pirates is because it's a way to say both of them (or their identity-memes) are just so damn cool.

Comment author: Desrtopa 30 March 2012 07:05:20PM 4 points [-]

Pirates were also professionals at killing people; they made their livings by attacking people and taking their stuff.

The question of "Wikipedia pirates vs. Wikipedia ninjas" is still confused. Under what circumstances are they fighting? Are the ninjas inexplicably crewing a ship? Are the pirates stopping in at port? Has Omega arranged a 5 v 5 pirate/ninja arena deathmatch?

Comment author: Raemon 29 March 2012 02:19:22PM *  4 points [-]

I sort of assumed half the pirate crew would just BE ninjas in disguise, and then the other half would just be dead.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 March 2012 11:00:58PM 11 points [-]

Well, and now the question "How can we teach the skill Check Consequentialism?" has degenerated into an erudite debate on pirates vs. ninjas.

I have never, ever been tempted to say this before on LW but WELCOME TO REDDIT.

Edit: The conversation seems much more intelligent than average Reddit, but I still think we're solving the wrong problem here.

Edit 2: And now, no longer feeling as encouraged by the 150 comments I saw when I checked back in.

On the plus side, I'll concede we've demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that "pirates vs. ninjas" can be an argument -generator for all audiences.

Comment author: thomblake 29 March 2012 11:39:54PM 3 points [-]

puh-lease. There were pirates vs. ninjas debates on the Internet long before Reddit existed.

You happen to have carved out a small portion of the Internet, a medium that aside from porn is primarily for pirates vs. ninjas debates, and declared it's for some other purpose. That doesn't mean you're allowed to be surprised when pirates vs. ninjas debates happen.

And this site's software based on Reddit. Is "WELCOME TO REDDIT" even worth saying when there's a "powered by reddit" icon on the bottom-right of the site?

Now, back to the local version of pirates-vs-ninjas, which sometimes looks deceptively like discussion of rationality...

Comment author: APMason 29 March 2012 11:44:21PM 2 points [-]

You happen to have carved out a small portion of the Internet, a medium that aside from porn is primarily for pirates vs. ninjas debates, and declared it's for some other purpose. That doesn't mean you're allowed to be surprised when pirates vs. ninjas debates happen.

Is he allowed to be surprised when lesswrong porn happens?

Comment author: thomblake 29 March 2012 11:48:09PM 4 points [-]

I think porn itself has somehow managed to stay off Less Wrong long enough to warrant surprise.

But no, it's not warranted to believe that porn about Less Wrong does not exist. Rule 34.

Comment author: gwern 30 March 2012 01:32:55AM 7 points [-]

I've joked in the past about writing YudkowskyxBostrom slash fics; I swear to Bayes, if people keep annoyingly discussing LW porn, I will write it!

Comment author: MixedNuts 30 March 2012 11:27:36AM 5 points [-]

Please include a threesome with Vassar.

Comment author: Multiheaded 02 April 2012 10:10:12AM 1 point [-]

Pass the brain bleach.

Comment author: thomblake 30 March 2012 02:13:40AM 0 points [-]

I'd write it, but I'm too busy working on that fic where Harry has to marry Draco to save someone from Azkaban.

Comment author: thomblake 30 March 2012 01:56:37AM 0 points [-]

Corollary to Rule 35. You have to now.

Comment author: Blueberry 30 March 2012 12:18:37AM 2 points [-]

It's not porn, but did you see Yvain's drawing?

Comment author: CronoDAS 02 April 2012 10:54:41AM 1 point [-]

Are you trying to spoil our fun?

Comment author: thomblake 30 March 2012 01:05:43AM 1 point [-]

Besides, it's not like we're having really ridiculous thread-derailing discussions. It's not like anyone's tried to claim something insane, like that Twilight Sparkle is the best pony, or a plane on a treadmill will be able to take off, or that billy goats are not delicious.

Comment author: Nornagest 29 March 2012 05:47:31PM *  6 points [-]

The identity-memes are the only reason the question even exists. Historical pirates were mostly desperate or ambitious but otherwise ordinary sailors, and usually had pretty short careers. Historical ninja were usually dirt-poor burakumin without much in the way of reliable support, and -- in common with a lot of other historical assassins -- were individually used more as ammunition than as soldiers. I'm having a hard time coming up with a reasonable scenario in which they (as opposed to the pop-cultural image of either one) would have any incentive to fight, and if you stretch to create one the outcome would be almost completely determined by the circumstances.

Comment author: Vaniver 29 March 2012 06:09:15PM 2 points [-]

Well, piracy was a huge thing in Japan and China and so on, so if there were any conflicts between them, they could have been recorded. But I don't see why they would have been- typically, there was no significant benefit to killing a pirate captain (rather than sinking his boat or hanging him and all of his crew), and so assassins would only be employed against people whose deaths were meaningful enough (generals, title-holders, etc.). Similarly, I doubt ninja would transport valuable cargo all that frequency, and typically it was Japanese pirates preying on Chinese vessels anyway.

I mean, pirate just means "sea bandit" but evokes the image of mostly European sea bandits at a time when navies were based far away, coastal land was essentially free, and cargoes were really valuable, because that's when there was a veneer of excitement over lowlifes murdering for fun and profit.

Comment author: fezziwig 29 March 2012 06:48:12PM 1 point [-]

Historical pirates were mostly desperate or ambitious but otherwise ordinary sailors...

Even that's pretty time-period dependent; check out e.g. Jean Lafitte's utterly ridiculous career.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 29 March 2012 02:04:31PM *  7 points [-]

Short exercise. Does anyone actually think pirates stand a chance against professionally trained assassins? I thought the only reason people defend pirates is because it's a way to say both of them (or their identity-memes) are just so damn cool.

What are we talking about here? Ninjas didn't normally kill in open combat (nor did pirates if they could help it) and pirates didn't generally fight in set piece battles on land. In order to give a serious answer to such a question, you would first need to specify a combat situation: 17th century-style naval combat (of which the outcome would be largely dependent on the state of Japanese versus Portuguese maritime technology), open field daylight desert island team combat, single combat (with or without firearms and at what distance?), coastline castle siege, covert assassination of captain/quartermaster aboard a ship, etc...

Comment author: TheOtherDave 29 March 2012 02:14:53PM 5 points [-]

Not sure I agree.

If I'm a trained covert assassin and I find myself in the middle of a 17th century-style naval combat involving Japanese vs. Portuguese marine technology, it seems what I ought to do is attempt to covertly board the enemy vessel and assassinate its captain. If I'm a trained covert assassin and I find myself in the middle of open field daylight desert island team combat against trained shock troops, it seems what I ought to do is run away and come back in about twelve hours and try again.

More generally, part of what a sufficiently trained combatant is taught to do is control the combat situation, rather than take it as a given.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 March 2012 02:25:19PM *  0 points [-]

What are we talking about here?

I am talking about ninjas and pirates in any situation which doesn't involve giving all the ninjas idiot balls. So, for example, the ninjas don't swim out to sea and start throwing shurikens at pirate ships.

The best pirates could do if they somehow got advance notice that the ninjas were out to get them is to hide and stay away from any land the ninjas have access to (and can maintain reasonable intelligence on). Meanwhile they are almost no threat at all to the ninjas.

Suppose for some reason a stalemate with pirates hiding from the ninjas and restricting themselves from any activities that would give the ninjas a chance to catch them doesn't count as "ninjas are clearly better". Even then it would take very little time for the ninjas to gain sea based dominance too. They are a paramilitary organisation with government support. They'll quickly get better ships, easily get sailing training or just conscript sailors and then go hunt down the pirates.

If ninjas and pirates get into conflict the pirates just lose. Fortunately for pirates they aren't out to win - they are out to get booty. Pirates prey on the weak or undefended and avoid fighting the powerful - be it ninjas, armies, navies, heavily defended settlements or sith lords. They also make sure they don't do anything that pushes them across the threshold of being a nuisance to the powerful and a serious threat that needs to be dealt with by elite forces. (Like ninjas.)

Comment author: thomblake 29 March 2012 05:29:37PM 1 point [-]

They are a paramilitary organisation with government support.

This also applies to my paradigm of "pirate".

Comment author: Alicorn 29 March 2012 05:37:10PM *  1 point [-]

They are a paramilitary organisation with government support.

This also applies to my paradigm of "pirate".

You might be thinking of privateers.

Comment author: thomblake 29 March 2012 06:42:22PM 3 points [-]

Yes. There was a very blurry distinction between the two while England wanted to encourage piracy against France.

Comment author: CronoDAS 02 April 2012 10:46:54AM *  2 points [-]

Short exercise. Does anyone actually think pirates stand a chance against professionally trained assassins?

Pirates have guns.

Comment author: Bugmaster 29 March 2012 11:13:17PM 1 point [-]

Does anyone actually think pirates stand a chance against professionally trained assassins?

Technically, both pirates and ninjas, as they are depicted in popular folklore, are fictional entities. While people named "pirates" and "ninjas" did exist (and do exist to this day), they bear little resemblance to grog-swilling scallywags or black-clad wire-fu artists or what have you. Thus, before we can answer your question, we need to nail down exactly what you mean by "pirates" and "ninjas"; what capabilities you expect these fictional combatants to possess, and then go from there.

Comment author: orthonormal 30 March 2012 12:10:43AM 5 points [-]

I can't believe you missed the chance to say, "Taboo pirates and ninjas."

Comment author: Humbug 30 March 2012 08:40:35AM *  3 points [-]

I can't believe you missed the chance to say, "Taboo pirates and ninjas."

"Pirates versus Ninjas is the Mind-Killer"

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 March 2012 12:19:26AM 1 point [-]

Doesn't work - the accent is on the second syllable.

Comment author: ciphergoth 01 April 2012 03:41:05PM 0 points [-]

Pirates and ninjas taboo - oh my!

Comment author: thomblake 30 March 2012 12:17:32AM 0 points [-]

Taboo pirate ninja badger mushroom narwhal!

Comment author: thomblake 29 March 2012 01:51:16PM 1 point [-]

Are we talking about real pirates and ninjas, or fantasy pirates and ninjas?

Amongst other advantages, fictional pirates have the devil's own luck.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 March 2012 02:21:03PM -1 points [-]

Are we talking about real pirates and ninjas, or fantasy pirates and ninjas?

Real pirates and ninjas. Fantasy pirates and ninjas are of course equally awesome, with the pirate persona perhaps having more potential for injecting individual charisma. Because a ninja who is complaining that the rum is gone just seems incompetent.

It is my position that any debate about ninjas vs pirates that is maintained must be about declaring the coolness of fictional pirate and ninjas. (Which is a perfectly respectable passtime!) Anyone who actually thinks real pirates aren't just ridiculously worse than ninjas is not thinking very well at all.

Comment author: Bugmaster 29 March 2012 11:16:39PM 2 points [-]

Why would real ninjas fight real pirates ? Isn't that the job for the Coast Guard, or the ancient Japanese equivalent thereof ?

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2012 02:44:24PM 2 points [-]

Real pirates and ninjas.

If we are being "real" then it only makes sense that the historical ninja would be fighting wokou, which are Japanese pirates of the period.

Comment author: Hul-Gil 06 April 2012 01:17:41AM *  0 points [-]

Worse in what manner? In individual combat? A pirate crew vs. an association of ninjas?

From the comments I've read so far, I think the hypothetical situations you've used to determine that ninjas would win are grossly weighted in favor of ninjas. For example, you've already said it can't be any sea-based conflict (unless the ninjas are specially-trained sailor-ninjas on a navy ship, instead of being passenger ninjas booking passage on a merchant ship, as most would do if required to travel by sea if traveling by sea is incidental to their main function - being, in this case, assassination), "because why would ninjas be at sea?" Yet it can be "drunk pirates in whorehouses, unaware they are being targeted, vs ninjas that know exactly where they are and can get to them in time."

Your ninjas also have unrealistic government support (they were usually employed by noble families or daimyos, not imperial forces, and considered quite expendable - see hairyfigment's comment below), "better" ships than the pirates (AFAIK almost impossible, considering the naval technology the sides would be using), the ability to obtain whatever training is required (no time limit? the pirates cannot buy training too?), are aware of the conflict while the pirates aren't (or would they be getting drunk on land? well - maybe), etc.

A distinction should be made between a strict determination of fighting prowess - pirates vs ninjas in equal numbers in open combat - and the sort of situation you seem to be thinking of, wherein we try to be as realistic as possible, and all factors (such as whether or not ninjas would be at sea, and a sailor's propensity to get drunk) are considered. The latter is a lot more difficult to figure out, since so much would depend on circumstance (as in your drunk pirate example). This should also include allowance for the favored methods of both sides - pirates fighting at sea, ninjas not charging forward in open combat but assassinating and infiltrating - though you only seem to make the latter allowance.

For the former situation, I believe pirates could possibly win. They have better guns, and contrary to popular assumption, pirates could be very skilled in swordsmanship and general brawling. A lot of them were ex-navy, and in any case you wouldn't survive long as a pirate without obtaining some competence. Ninjas might be trained in espionage and assassination, but that doesn't include open combat, and they'd likely have less experience with it than pirates. They were trained in swordmanship as well, though, and quite possibly more thoroughly (but in some cases inadequately!), and bows could be as good or better than guns at many points in our possible time-range.

For the latter, here are a few factors to consider. One, ninjas didn't often attack in groups; sometimes they operated in small teams, but not any as large as a pirate crew. They were not used to wipe out large groups of people, but individual targets. Already we must depart from realism if we want to grant anything like equal numbers; it wouldn't be interesting to think about "one ninja vs a crew of pirates", but it weights the situation in favor of the ninjas if we go beyond "a small group of ninjas vs a crew of pirates". Two, would the pirates be aware they're being targeted by assassins? That would seem to depend on why exactly they're being targeted - a bounty they might be aware of; a covert vendetta for personal reasons, probably not. Trying to think of a realistic reason for the conflict might be a bit difficult. Three, I don't think ninjas could ever requisition ships, but if they could, they would still be at a disadvantage in naval combat considering the superiority of European vessels up until very recently. (It's not like pirates would be exactly inexperienced at naval combat, note.) Four, the pirates might be based at an unknown location, or nowhere at all, leaving the ninjas to attempt to catch them either in the act of raiding a coastal village, or making landfall to obtain supplies. Five, the ninjas might also be based in a location unknown to the pirates, or operating clandestinely; so while I initially considered that the pirates might raid their Ninja HQ, that might not be possible.

So... we might have a crew of pirates making landfall in various locations and attempting to locate and kill a small (<12?) team of ninjas, and said small team of ninjas attempting to catch them in the act and kill them right back. I suppose there is also the possibility of ninjas acquiring a vessel to pursue the pirates, although I can't see how that would end any way but badly for them. They could hardly crew the entire vessel themselves, even if they had sufficient numbers, as they're not sailors. You could give them some year(s) to obtain sailing skill, but then, you could also give the pirates some year(s) to obtain espionage skill. You could give them an unhistorical amount of support and grant them a naval vessel with crew, but now it's not strictly pirates vs. ninjas.

A variety of situations could develop from this: ninjas creep aboard anchored pirate vessel and attempt to assassinate the crew, pirates raid village where ninjas are staying, pirates and ninjas engage in naval combat, land-based combat... I think, as Nornagest says above, it is clear that you have to stretch to come up with a situation in which they're actually engaging in conflict, and if you do, who wins depends entirely on the circumstance you have concocted.

To say that anyone who doesn't think real pirates aren't "ridiculously 'worse' than ninjas is not thinking well at all" seems quite absurd to me, and even smacks of "ninja fanboyism". It's by no means so clear-cut that any pirate-supporter is obviously mentally deficient. And I like ninjas much more, personally. Pirates were awful people who deserve to be vilified, not romanticized. I don't even know why I've put this much effort in supporting them, come to think of it, except my general urge to correct what I see as error. I've been exposed to too much weeabo-ism, perhaps.

Comment author: wedrifid 06 April 2012 02:06:22AM 0 points [-]

(unless the ninjas are sailor-ninjas on a navy ship - for some reason, despite the fact that any Japanese power with a navy never employed ninjas as far as has been recorded)

Was not my counterfactual scenario. It was someone else describing a counterfactual where ninjas are travelling by sea to a ninja-convention. My only contribution there was to (implicitly) assert that the counterfactualising operation that preserves the most probability mass to produce that scenario would not result in ninjas travelling on unarmed ships.

To say that anyone who doesn't think real pirates aren't "ridiculously worse [in an unspecified manner] than ninjas is not thinking well at all" seems quite absurd to me, and smacks of "ninja fanboyism".

I had never really considered it before daenerys proposed the idea of actually considering the question. I don't particularly accept the charge "in an unspecified manner" but I certainly haven't gone into detail. It roughly pertains to how one reasons about counter-factual and hypothetical situations. One can either take the counterfactual as an excuse to make up whatever story suits your position or you can apply the counterfactualizing operation in a manner that preserves the most probability mass.

I consider this question a valid diagnostic tool in that regard. In fact I went ahead and used it as such. I made this very meta-claim on facebook and when anyone disagreed I unfriended them. I call it either "evaporative cooling of styles of thinking in my chosen peers" or "being grumpy and getting rid of people who are likely to say annoying and wrong things in the future".

Comment author: Hul-Gil 06 April 2012 02:15:14AM 0 points [-]

Was not my counterfactual scenario. It was someone else describing a counterfactual where ninjas are travelling by sea to a ninja-convention. My only contribution there was to (implicitly) assert that the counterfactualising operation that preserves the most probability mass to produce that scenario would not result in ninjas travelling on unarmed ships.

I edited that; I think the daimyos did have their own navies. I'm not actually certain about that, though, and I don't feel like looking it up. Maybe someone who knows more Japanese history can contribute. In either case, I don't think it's possible to say which is more probable, since whether they book passage on a merchant ship, or are sent with a naval ship by a master who controls both, depends entirely on the circumstance we concoct. Historically, they could have done both, if daimyos did have navies.

Comment author: wedrifid 06 April 2012 02:23:18AM 0 points [-]

depends entirely on the circumstance we concoct

And in my experience the way people go about concocting such circumstances (in general, over all counterfactuals) matters a lot to me both in terms of how much respect I can maintain for them as a thinker and how much I can tolerate their presence. For the purpose of answering a specific question not all concocted circumstances are equal!

Comment author: TheOtherDave 06 April 2012 02:12:34AM 0 points [-]

Damned ninjas! Get off my lawn!

Comment author: wedrifid 06 April 2012 02:16:44AM 0 points [-]

Damned ninjas! Get off my lawn!

Better your lawn than inside your bedroom! ;)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 06 April 2012 02:25:40AM 1 point [-]

That's an entirely different genre.

Comment author: ciphergoth 29 March 2012 01:41:22PM 1 point [-]

I believe Dr McNinja has something to say about this.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 March 2012 05:12:56PM 0 points [-]

Short exercise.

I was mistaken. I'm amazed how much debate the question prompted here even with this framing. I really thought it was just a closed question.

Comment author: thomblake 29 March 2012 05:34:21PM 3 points [-]

I'm amazed how much debate the question prompted here even with this framing.

I'm amazed at your amazement.

I'd have expected at least this much out of any such silly comparison, even here. Try:

  • Raptors vs. Jesus
  • Twinkie vs. cockroach
  • Star Trek vs. Pop Tarts

Or any other conflict between trochees.

Comment author: Vaniver 29 March 2012 07:18:36PM 2 points [-]

I was mistaken. I'm amazed how much debate the question prompted here even with this framing. I really thought it was just a closed question.

Like thomblake, I'm amazed at your amazement, but on a different track. Unless you're an expert in the histories of navies, espionage, and other miscellany, why would you expect your intuition to both identify closed questions and the correct answers?

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2012 01:05:28PM -1 points [-]

A self-taught dirty fighter/swashbuckler against a professional assassin with quality weapons and poinsions isn't much of a fight.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 March 2012 01:26:53PM -1 points [-]

A self-taught dirty fighter/swashbuckler against a professional assassin with quality weapons and poinsions isn't much of a fight.


Comment author: Bugmaster 29 March 2012 11:18:16PM 1 point [-]

Upvoted for delicious ironic ambiguity.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 24 March 2012 12:00:26PM *  7 points [-]

This seems like a comparatively reliable procedure: imagine a collection of possible worlds generated by possible actions; explain what future events distinguish between these worlds in a way that makes one of them preferable to the others; then choose the action that leads there.

Paying attention to events that distinguish these possible futures from each other guards against errors such as comparing to status quo or should-world (neither of which is among the possible futures), or worse comparing an arbitrarily picked-out event (in one of the possible futures) to an arbitrary anchor (i.e. a cost that feels excessive in some absolute way, and not by comparison to alternatives). Focusing on future events and not past events or actions themselves guards against deontological and identity-based arguments, such as "this is a proper action", "he shouted first" or "because I'm a human being".

Saying "positive consequence" sounds like a bad habit to me: positive compared to what? The comparison should be among the alternatives, without anchoring on some baseline of neutrality such that some consequences are more "positive" than that.

Comment author: James_Miller 24 March 2012 07:15:05PM 6 points [-]

You could use mazes where your score is -(total distance traveled) . First, give a simple maze with two obvious paths, A and B but Path A is much shorter. Then give a second maze identical to the first but you are taking over from another player who has already gone down Path B but the shortest way to the exit is to double back and then go down Path A. Then give the same maze but now there is an obstacle on Path A that you must go around if you take this path and so it's now optimal to go on Path B. The obstacle was placed there for some unfair reason (Perhaps only women will face the obstacle.) Next, the same situation as before but you have the ability to erase the obstacle at no cost. Finally the same as before but now you are told that the maze is only a map and you can't erase the obstacle on the map. You should have the people play for real money to make the game more emotionally "meaningful." Also, you could plant someone who makes arguments against the consequentialist outcome using analogies to real life situations (i.e. women should never give in to discrimination.)

Comment author: handoflixue 29 March 2012 10:32:23PM 2 points [-]

(i.e. women should never give in to discrimination.)

And then you collapse in to short vs long-term gains. Giving in to discrimination is a net long-term loss, since then you'll face it in the future...

Also, for initial teaching, you want to present the SIMPLEST possible version. Rationality 102 is when you start introducing enemy agents, and then eventually combine that idea with this one after BOTH "sabotaging agents" and "consequentialism" are understood.

Comment author: velisar 24 March 2012 11:31:18AM 6 points [-]

Kahneman suggests such an exercise for groups after pointing out that organizations generally act more rationally than individuals. The devil's advocate role and thinking at the worst possible outcome. We don't always have the luxury of having others near us for checking our thoughts. But we often have imaginary conversations with friends or parents. So it shouldn't be very difficult to assign a devil's advocate position to a imaginary voice. That should put in perspective the way we feel about the subject. It is a basic mean of delaying the strong coherence of the first good narrative.

Maybe it would be great to have an imaginary Bayesian friend...

Comment author: TheDave 13 April 2012 07:41:38PM *  5 points [-]

Concreteness Game The object of this game is to train players to generate examples for explaining concepts quickly. The game requires at least two people, but may work better with groups of three or four.

To play, one of the players (Asker) names a concept to be explained, such as "How do you traverse a linked nodal network", "Explain the law of Conservation of Energy", or "What constitutes good financial advice?"

The other player (Generator) then tries to explain the concept/skill/other by using a nearby object to assist. The Generator should relate the example back to the original query and explain how the example demonstrates the experimental predictions that the concept makes (see Extended Example below). The Asker listens to the explanation, and once the Asker feels as though the generator has been able to explain the concept fully, they indicate to the Generator that the Generator should pick another object and start again. Another option the Asker should exercise is to ask follow-up questions about the Generator's example, asking for clarification or elaboration by interacting with their object in some way (examples in the Extended Example section below)

Extended Example: <Two people are on a walk in a park> Asker: "Okay, let's try this. Explain Newton's Third Law." Generator: "All right, <looks around> hmm... Okay, take that big old oak tree as an example! Now, imagine that I want to push this tree over. <Moves to stand next to the trunk, with feet spread wide apart to push against the tree very strongly> If I push on it, it doesn't really move anywhere, and neither do I. That's because the tree has a really strong root system to prevent it from being tipped over, while I'm braced against the ground. That means the force I put on the tree doesn't go anywhere. Now, what happens if I don't brace against the tree? <Moves to stand with both feet very close to the base of the tree> I'm going to try and push with the same strength that I did just now. <Pushes and has to quickly stumble away to recover from being thrown off balance> If the tree didn't exert any force on me, then why did it force my arms away strongly enough to tip me over?" Asker: "What happens if you were standing on ice instead of dirt?" Generator: "Hmm... If I wanted to avoid spinning away from the tree, then I couldn't push against it too hard. If I did want to, though, then I could turn this whole area into a pinball machine by pushing off of all the trees!" Asker: <laughs> "Okay, another example this time!" Generator: <looks around> "All right, look at that guy in his kayak over there. Every time he uses his paddle to push himself forward, you see a whirlpool where his paddle was. That's because he's pushing against a lot of water with the flat of the paddle. The paddle pushes on the water, and the water pushes back on the paddle. You can see this because he moves forward while the water is disturbed. If the law didn't apply then the water shouldn't-" Asker: <interrupting> "Okay, you've got that one, give me another one!" Generator: <grinning> "Hmm..."

Through playtesting, we've noticed that there are two broad categories of useful questions in this game. The first type are "You have a rule, now apply it with the objects in front of us". For example, one might describe good financial advice by pointing at a nearly-broken-down refrigerator: "Some advice you have to use right away like take-out food before it spoils. Other advice will keep basically forever, like ketchup maybe, while other advice will let you repair the refigerator to let it keep everything fresh for longer. What you want is to avoid poisoning yourself and keep healthy, so good advice is anything that keeps from poisoning you or your friends. Stock tips are like take-out food, while better mental models are like fixing the fridge." The other type of useful question seems to be descriptive in nature. "Explain the life-cycle of a caterpillar": "Well, imagine riding around on a cheap kid's bicycle and picking up tubing, gears, and other supplies as you ride around. Then you take the bike and everything you collected into a room, work for a while, and you come out with an awesome racing bike that lets you do things you never could before".

Example questions: Explain Conservation of Energy. What constitutes good scientific practice? Explain the sunk cost fallacy. How do you lift heavy things safely? What constitutes an efficient algorithm? Explain (Hansonian) signaling. Explain priming and how expectations about the quality of a thing can affect your assessment of its quality. Describe how Omega might optimize for happiness. Explain what a set (in set theory) is and some of its basic properties. Explain the fallacy of gray.

Theory (SPOILER ALERT! This section contains material likely to prime your reactions) This game is designed to help people provide concrete examples on demand. The expectation is that: Forcing the players to compare their mental models against physical objects makes their explanations more concrete because physical objects can be interacted with. If a Generator relates a tree to AI theory, the question "What is a branch and what happens when I push on it?" seems to yield concrete answers more often in practice than "What are the features of AI theory and why do they matter?". The concept of follow-up questions seems to greatly increase the fun of the game. Many more grins were observed when the Asker occasionally quit saying "Okay, got it, another example now!" and instead interacted with the physical model in some way. Playtesting seemed to also show that people really enjoyed coming up with examples up to their third, and the fourth became difficult to generate while the fifth was simply not all that fun to force ourselves to come up with. Priming may have been an issue, but initial results suggest asking for roughly three examples is the most fun before moving to a different question.

EDIT: Formatting

Comment author: duckduckMOO 28 March 2012 08:23:12PM *  5 points [-]

Why is teaching people to think like consequentialists a good idea again? Serious question.

If they're (relatively successful) mathematicians and programmers I don't see how it could go wrong but I'm awfully worried about some of the rest of the population. Specifically people not being able to sustain it without letting other things slip.

second edit: I should clarify. It's teaching the habit that I'm thinking about. Everyone should be able to think like a consequentialist but is instilling these reflexes gonna be a net positive?

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2012 07:54:48PM 2 points [-]

Why is teaching people to think like consequentialists a good idea again? Serious question.

Devil's Advocating Here:

I do think we need to not forget that most people's minds do NOT operate like the typical LWian!

I know this personally, in that I tend to make intuitive-based decisions (and by intuitive, I mean things like waking up one morning thinking "I should eat less meat", and so becoming a vegetarian for the next 8 (so far) years.)

Decisions I have made intuitively like this include: atheism, vegetarianism, not drinking alcohol (that one only lasted 7 years), quitting grad school, not having children, polyamory, pretty much every career decision, liking rationality.

The social situations were different enough for each of these for me to think that social concerns were not the main trigger, but I somehow feel like I've ended up making rational-style choices by following my intuition (and I recognize that I probably just lost all credibility I might have had here by writing this post :P).

The upside of this, is that since I am always doing what I feel like, I rarely feel like I am having to fight myself. For example, giving up meat was amazingly easy for me, because it was like the decision had already been made.

From someone who really enjoys learning about rationality, I can still see how it wouldn't mesh with many people's methods of living, without a complete lifestyle overhaul (which is an unlikely result of a single class).

But I do not AT ALL think that this means that we shouldn't teach people about consequentialism or other rationality topics (I am all about spreading rationality), I just think we need to make sure that we do so in a way that can encompass a wide range of people. First figure out what percentage of the overall population you want to be accessible to, (say the top 60% intellectually, MINUS the 20% most intuitive types) and make sure that your presentations and materials are able to reach whatever your target is.

Comment author: JoachimSchipper 29 March 2012 07:27:56AM 1 point [-]

Umm, are you under the impression that (the non-mathematical-ish part of the population/anyone) is constantly operating near their sustainable cognitive maxima? So near that adding a nearly-automatic reflex would push them over?

Neither looking around nor introspection suggests that that is true.

Comment author: scav 29 March 2012 08:19:58AM 5 points [-]

Indeed. That would imply that our shared goal of raising the sanity waterline would cause most of the population to drown :)

Mind you, I like that the OP is asking what the consequences would be. However my guess is: more people making slightly better decisions some of the time, and with no obvious mechanism for "letting other things slip", I don't see a downside.

Comment author: AspiringKnitter 04 April 2012 03:39:18AM *  0 points [-]

What if the problem isn't that it's too cognitively taxing, but that, applied in the sloppy way most people apply their heuristics, it could lead to irrational choices or selfish behavior?

Comment author: scav 04 April 2012 08:19:39AM 1 point [-]

People already make irrational choices. I don't think teaching them one way to mitigate that could make things worse. What's the opposite of status quo bias? I might have some of that, whatever it is :)

Comment author: handoflixue 03 April 2012 12:22:38AM 0 points [-]

That would imply that our shared goal of raising the sanity waterline would cause most of the population to drown :)

Upvoted because I rather like that phrasing :)

Comment author: [deleted] 30 March 2012 09:29:49AM 1 point [-]

Well, when teaching non-perfect people about consequentialism you should teach them about ethical injunctions as well. I don't think teaching both will be a net negative.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 March 2012 02:49:42PM 5 points [-]

I think an important pre-skill is to decide what your goals are BEFORE checking the consequences. Otherwise, you can easily retroactively change your goals to fit whatever action you want.

For example, in the sunk costs PhD scenario, it would be easy for someone to say something like "If I pursue my PhD, it will make my family proud. This is very important to me, so I will pursue my PhD." However if you asked them what their goals are BEFORE they listed the consequences of each action they probably would not list "Make family proud", but would list things like "Job I enjoy" and "Make more money in my career".

The trap is that it can be very difficult to admit to your ACTUAL goals. For example, it took a while for me to realize that I don't ACTUALLY care about making money once I have enough to survive (unless phrased in a way such as "If I do Job B, I only have to work 12 hours/week" or somesuch).

So I think figuring out what your actual goals are (noit the cached thoughts of your goals) is a set of exercises itself, but that they should probably be done before the Consequentialism exercises.

Comment author: handoflixue 29 March 2012 10:42:34PM 3 points [-]

Conversely, you might not recognize your true rejection until you go "well, but wait, I don't want to abandon my PhD - my family wouldn't be proud of me." If you get stuck on that, it's possible that "make your family proud" really IS important to you.

I do agree that it's a useful idea, but new insights aren't necessarily ex post facto rationalizations.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 26 March 2012 09:46:49PM 5 points [-]

an audience of non-Sequence-reading experimental subjects, who were mostly either programmers or in other technical subjects, so I could go through the math fairly fast

I don't have suggestions on the main question, but I strongly recommend that you design the curricula to be consumable by corporate executives. If you can convince companies that they need to send their execs to week-long rationality seminars, to help them improve their decision-making skills, you are going to make megabucks.

Comment author: Vaniver 24 March 2012 05:40:41AM *  5 points [-]

Another inferential path: it may be valuable to differentiate them as attitudes and events. If my motivation for getting a PhD is "I will feel terrible if I do not get a PhD", that's an attitude motivation, which in theory I have internal control over. If my motivation for getting a PhD is that I will get hired for a different sort of job, that's an event motivation, for which control is primarily external. I don't have control over whether or not a variety of job requires a PhD, but I do have control over whether or not my attitude will be negative if I don't have a PhD.

The obvious social mirror of the Really Getting Bayes game is to have people pair up and dissect motivations for something, trying to identify what's event-based and what's attitude-based (or however you're presenting it). It will help for them to be motivations they're feeling, rather than descriptions they're reading.

Asking them to provide examples from their life is potentially useful and will promote bonding between participants, but requires heavy investment by participants. Another approach is to offer them a choice between gambles, where all potential consequences are as apples and oranges as you can make them. Some more trickery could be used to provide non-consequential reasons to pick one gamble over another- perhaps give participant's names to the gambits, but don't require them to pick the gambit with their name.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 March 2012 12:02:45AM 13 points [-]

Cleverness-related failure mode (that actually came up in the trial unit):

One shouldn't try too hard to rescue non-consequentialist reasons. This probably has to be emphasized especially with new audiences who associate "rationality" to Spock and university professors, or audiences who've studied pre-behavioral economics, and who think they score extra points if they come up with amazingly clever ways to rescue bad ideas.

Any decision-making algorithm, no matter how stupid, can be made to look like expected utility maximization through the transform "Assign infinite negative utility to departing from decision algorithm X". This in essence is what somebody is doing when they say, "Aha! But if I stop my PhD program now, I'll have the negative consequence of having abandoned a sunk cost!" (Sometimes I feel like hitting people with a wooden stick when they do this, but that act just expresses an emotion rather than having any discernible positive consequences.) This is Cleverly Failing to Get the Point if "not wanting to abandon a sunk cost", i.e., the counterintuitive feel of departing from the brain's previous decision algorithm, is treated as an overriding consideration, i.e., an infinite negative utility.

It's a legitimate future consequence only if the person says, "The sense of having abandoned a sunk cost will make me feel sick to my stomach for around three days, after which I would start to adjust and adapt a la the hedonic treadmill". In this case they have weighed the intensity and the duration of the future hedonic consequence, rather than treating it as an instantaneous infinite negative penalty, and are now ready to trade that off against other and probably larger considerations like the total amount of work required to get a PhD.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2012 07:42:19PM *  6 points [-]

This is perhaps ironic because I have been going through precisely this PhD sunk-cost problem for the past few months, but regret bias is a serious part of behavior psychology. I've been dissatisfied with the direction that publication standards are moving in my current field (computer vision) for a while, and as a result have had a tough time finding an adviser/project match that would let me do things at a more abstract mathematical level. No one is very interested in those papers. Ultimately, over a two-year period, I reasoned that it was better for me to leave the PhD program, find a job that allowed me to pursue certain goals, and to leave research ideas to my own spare time. The single most difficult hurdle in reaching this decision was feeling very worried that I would regret leaving my institution (Harvard) because everyone tells me that a PhD from Harvard "opens lots of doors" and lots of people who I trust and think are non-trivially intelligent have insisted that unpleasantly sticking it out in the PhD program just to obtain the credential is absolutely the best thing.

My own assessment is that I will do just fine without that particular credential and that being able to use personal time to pursue the research I care about, even if I ultimately am not talented enough to publish any of it on my own, will be more fulfilling. But this was a damn hard conclusion to come by. I felt stressed and nervous, concerned that I will hate my future job's working conditions and beat myself up over not sticking it out at Harvard. I largely made it into Harvard through sheer, stupid ability to work unreasonably long hours to self-teach. That is, by stubbornly never quitting; it's not easy, however rational I wish to be, to feel free of these kinds of self-identity stigmas (e.g. don't be a quitter).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that perceived future pain of regretting a decision is a legitimate consequence to consider. And sometimes that is absolutely a consequence that one should wish to avoid. To offer another example from my own life, a family member was in a position where she became pregnant unexpectedly while she was an unmarried 19-year-old college student. After many talks about the situation in general, I was asked what my own opinion was about the option of getting an abortion. I said it seemed like a reasonable option and might ultimately be the best thing, obviously modulo the person's personal beliefs. Ultimately, however, this family member chose not to get the abortion because of the counterfactual regret of having terminated a potential life.

The person said, "if I get an abortion, then in the future I will remember that I did that thing and (as far as I can tell right now) I will always feel visceral pain about that." That is a legitimate future consequence.

I think the problem that you want to isolate is different than just regret bias. I think the problem you want to address is the fact that a person's current self is usually slavishly in the service of the remembering self as Kahneman puts it. We buy things because we think they will provide lots of utility, but then a few months later we don't even use them any more. We prefer to keep our hands in painfully cold water for a longer total time as long as the last bit of the time includes warmer water (and thus fosters a more pleasant transitional memory). And we think we will regret something a lot more than we really will.

You want to design exercises that bring about a stark comparison between how you think you will remember something vs. the actual facts of the matter. And then focus on situations where the first component (how you think you will remember something) actually should matter (perhaps an abortion is a good example of that), and how the cognitive machinery that applies to problems like that one is completely inappropriate for problems like "should I upgrade to the new iPad2 because of the shinier screen", yet we use the same cognitive software for both problems.

This sort of thing has been looked at w.r.t. dietary decisions before. I believe the results showed that when you are under a cognitive load, you'll make consistently poorer snack choices than when you are not being asked to answer hard questions. Imagine how much more this would be influenced by the stresses of a situation like anguishing about whether to leave a PhD program.

I'm not optimistic that there is an easy way to address this. It seems to fit in with Hanson's near/far mode ideas as well. When in near mode, we'll be more capable of isolating practical constraints and consequences of a decision. But if a question immediately puts us in far mode, it's much harder.

Consider the difference between "Should I leave my PhD program?" and "Should Jeff leave Jeff's PhD program?" As much as people fail to pick out the consequences in their own decisions, I would suspect it's far worse when migrated to another person's issue. We tend to give advice in far mode, but always expect to receive advice in near mode.

There's just a lot to disentangle about this. My opinion is that it would be better to break up the problem of "Why don't people make sound consequentialist decisions?" into a bunch of smaller domain-specific sub-problems, and then to build the small tests around recognizing those sub-issues. Once people are good at dealing with any given sub-issue conditioned on the event that they recognize that they are in that sub-issue, then move on to exercises that teach you how to recognize potential sub-issues.

Comment author: jimmy 24 March 2012 11:13:22PM 4 points [-]

It's a legitimate future consequence only if the person says, "The sense of having abandoned a sunk cost will make me feel sick to my stomach for around three days, after which I would start to adjust and adapt a la the hedonic treadmill"

I wouldn't even allow that. I much prefer to treat such a sense as a (misguided) signal about the map, rather than a piece of territory that I intrinsically care about. Seeing things with this framing allows you to explore the signals with less distortion, and allows them to go away more easily once you take them into account. If you start treating them as things to worry about, then you get sadness about sadness, fear about fear, and other information cascades that can be quite destructive.

Additionally, on the cases where the irrational discomfort actually sways your decision over the threshold, you're training yourself to listen to things that should not exist in the first place, which just reinforces the problem.

Comment author: handoflixue 29 March 2012 09:07:25PM 4 points [-]

You're training yourself to listen to things that should not exist in the first place

This strikes me as a perfect lead-in to Spock style "Bah, my emotions SHOULDN'T exist, therefor I will just IGNORE them". This does not work well.

If we ignore a REAL negative consequence in our planning, we're going to get frustrated when the consequence happens anyway, because now it's an UNEXPECTED negative consequence of our decision. If we further decide that we're not REALLY having that negative consequence, then it will get further exacerbated by our unwillingness to accept the situation, and therefor our inability to actually do anything to fix the situation. It's entirely possible that we're now miserable for two weeks instead of three days.

Heck, It's entirely possible the whole thing could have been fixed by thinking about it and saying "I would normally feel bad, but since I'm aware of this, I can instead just remind myself of the awesome rational decision I'm making, and how cool my life is because of this Rationality thing!", possibly supplemented by a celebratory slice of cake to reinforce that this is a positive, not a negative, event. (And cake makes everyone happy!)

Comment author: jimmy 29 March 2012 11:06:32PM 3 points [-]

This strikes me as a perfect lead-in to Spock style "Bah, my emotions SHOULDN'T exist, therefor I will just IGNORE them". This does not work well.

No no no, not that. That's terrible!

"listen" is ambiguous - oops. You want to acknowledge the feeling, but not act on it. Once you can acknowledge it, you can realize that it doesn't make sense, and then release that feeling and be done with it.

Comment author: handoflixue 30 March 2012 09:38:52PM 3 points [-]

If I'm hungry, I can't just ignore that and continue to function at 100%. I can go eat and restore my blood sugar, or I can delay that hunger and function at less-than-peak efficiency because my body does not have all the resources it needs.

Emotions are the same way - if I feel upset or a sense of loss, I have to address that emotion. This is not always a simple "acknowledge and release" 5 minute process.

Believing otherwise will screw me up just as badly as believing I can cure hunger by "acknowledging and releasing" it instead of eating lunch.

Comment author: jimmy 31 March 2012 04:08:04AM *  2 points [-]

I think we agree a lot more than you realize. Pretending that you aren't feeling emotion that you are feeling is a recipe for disaster. In your analogy, I recommend the equivalent of eating.

However, this doesn't mean that you yield to the emotions when they're pushing you towards bad decisions. It also doesn't mean you pretend that it has to be some big ordeal to fix the problem right. Those are both very bad ideas for more reasons than are obvious.

"eating" can be anywhere from a split second automatic response to a extended ordeal. If you know what you're doing, the Phd example is not more than a 5 minute process - I've walked people through worse things in about that time.

Comment author: Blueberry 02 April 2012 08:42:23AM 2 points [-]

If you know what you're doing, the Phd example is not more than a 5 minute process - I've walked people through worse things in about that time.

Please elaborate!

Comment author: jimmy 02 April 2012 09:04:01AM 2 points [-]

I "cheated" a bit, in that I had them spend ~15-20 minutes with a chat bot that taught them some skills for getting in touch with those parts of their mind. Actually working through the problem was a few minutes of text chat that basically pointed out that there was no magic option and that they needed to let go of the problem emotions. All the real magic was in putting them in the state of mind to shut up and listen.

I talk about it a bit here

Comment author: handoflixue 02 April 2012 11:28:31PM 0 points [-]

I suppose the best analogy I could offer here is getting robbed. It takes maybe 5 minutes to get robbed. There's (usually) nothing you can do to fix the situation or recoup the cost. But people still feel bad about it for a while.

Your link seems to suggest, more or less, using hypnosis to just wipe out this guilt - except the examples you give don't really seem to address that emotional side at all. You're focusing on the intellectual acceptance of "yes, I should drop the PhD", which isn't what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the emotional baggage that comes with that, the sense that you've wasted 2 years as a sunk cost that isn't even doing you any good at this point.

If you're really hypnotizing way that guilt, that emotional response, then I guess I am misunderstanding you. Is that the case? Because I would say that, based on my personal experience, that is seriously dangerous territory. Not to say you shouldn't trust yourself with it - I do it myself. But it is a technique I have seen cause a lot of people serious problems, and definitely not one I'd teach casually.

Comment author: jimmy 03 April 2012 01:44:45AM 0 points [-]

If you're really hypnotizing way that guilt, that emotional response, then I guess I am misunderstanding you. Is that the case?

Haha! YES!

...people still feel bad about it for a while.

Yep. They're doing it wrong.

You're focusing on the intellectual acceptance of "yes, I should drop the PhD"

No no no no no! I'm talking about the emotional acceptance. It is a very different thing than intellectual acceptance, but that does not mean they can't track each other. If your mind is organized well, they do track.

Have you read Kaj's post on overcoming suffering and suffering as attention allocation conflicts? This is basically what I'm talking about

I would say that, based on my personal experience, that is seriously dangerous territory

There is a very important distinction between suppressing emotion (perhaps successfully) and eliminating the cause of the emotion directly by coming up with a better way of handling the conflict. The latter is healthy and quite low risk compared to the null option. This is what I do - with or without "hypnosis".

Suppressing emotion is a recipe for disaster.

Comment author: pjeby 24 March 2012 07:38:36PM 9 points [-]

Sometimes I feel like hitting people with a wooden stick when they do this, but that act just expresses an emotion rather than having any discernible positive consequences.)

My normal response is, "so what's bad about that?" and go a few rounds until the person has to struggle for an answer... the teachable moment where I can say, "you see what you're doing? you're just making stuff up. What's actually going to happen?"

(That being said, it would definitely have been helpful for me in the past if I had thought to confine questions of consequences to things happening at a point-in-time. I eventually figured out that I needed to ask that for things people were thinking about or remembering, but there was a long time where I also had the hit-them-with-a-stick frustration to this kind of response.)

The only suggestion I have for exercises is to make people write down their own thinking (or state their thinking out loud), and then read it back as a kind of grammar-checking exercise. Are these abstract nouns or concrete nouns? Do they describe a point in time or some sort of vague non-timey thing?

I've done some similar things with small groups, though, and one thing that becomes quickly apparent is that everybody already knows when somebody else is doing it wrong. The part of the exercise that's hard, is learning to apply it to your own thoughts or utterances, and for that, it helps to externalize them first, then treat them as input.

To put it another way, the prerequisite 5-second skill for consequence checking is reflecting on what you just said or thought. If people don't reflect on their utterances, no further debiasing skills can be applied.

Comment author: GDC3 25 March 2012 02:33:29AM 6 points [-]

I think it's important to try to convert the reason to a consequentialist reason every time actually; it's just that one isn't done at that point, you have to step back and decide if the reason is enough. Like the murder example one needs to avoid dismissing reasons for being in the wrong format.

"I don't want to tell my boyfriend because he should already know" translates to: in the universe in which I tell my boyfriend he learns to rely on me to tell him these things a little more and his chance of doing this sort of thing without my asking decreases in the future. You then have to ask if this supposed effect is really true and if the negative consequence is strong enough, which depends on things like the chances that he'll eventually figure it out. But converting the reason gets you answering the right questions.

Sunk cost fallacy could be a sign that you don't trust your present judgement compared to when you made the original decision to put the resources in. The right question is to ask why you changed your mind so strongly that the degree isn't worth it even at significantly less additional cost. It is because of new information, new values, new rationality skills or just being in a bad mood right now.

An advantage is that you feel just as clever for coming up with the right questions whatever you decide, which out to make this a bit easy to motivate yourself to implement.

Comment author: handoflixue 29 March 2012 09:12:06PM 1 point [-]

Sunk cost fallacy could be a sign that you don't trust your present judgement compared to when you made the original decision to put the resources in

Definitely useful. I personally find the two have a very different emotional/internal "flavor" - I can tell when I want to avoid a sunk cost vs when I'm in a bad mood and just don't want to deal with a cost - but that's not necessarily always true of me, much less anyone else.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 24 March 2012 04:33:10AM 8 points [-]

This probably has to be emphasized especially with new audiences who associate "rationality" to Spock and university professors, or audiences who've studied pre-behavioral economics, and who think they score extra points if they come up with amazingly clever ways to rescue bad ideas.

One of the other models people have for the rationalizing sort of "rationality" is that of lawyers.

Lawyers are very good at logic — the LSAT, the entrance examination for U.S. law schools, leans heavily on logic puzzles — but the whole point of being a trial or appeals lawyer is to come up with clever (and socially respectable) arguments for whatever position your client may have at the moment.

This extends past real-world lawyerhood. The tabletop role-playing game crowd have the expression "rules lawyer" for a person who comes up with clever arguments for why their character should get away with whatever they want to at the moment.

Comment author: pnrjulius 04 April 2012 08:50:36PM *  1 point [-]

Indeed I think this is the central problem with the way most people use their powers of reasoning. (It even has a name: "the argumentative theory of reason".) They start with a conclusion, and work backwards to find rational (or at least rational-sounding) ways of supporting that conclusion.

We all do this automatically; it may be the very thing our brains evolved to do. We have to work very hard to get ourselves to do the opposite, start with evidence and use reasoning based on the evidence to decide on our conclusion. I'd say most scientists manage to do this right maybe half the time, and most laypeople almost never manage it.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 24 March 2012 11:52:57AM *  3 points [-]

Rationalization is an important skill and should be rewarded, not punished. If you never try to rationalize others' decisions then you won't notice when they actually do have a good justification, and if you never practice rationalization then you'll never get good enough at it to find their justifications when they exist. The result is gross overconfidence in the stupidity of the opposing side and thus gross overconfidence in one's own rationality. That leads to tragedies and atrocities, both personal and societal.

Comment author: Alicorn 24 March 2012 05:27:39PM 6 points [-]

Perspective-taking is a separate "skill" from rationalizing one's own behavior.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 24 March 2012 06:28:56PM 4 points [-]

Hm, is perspective-taking the same skill that I was talking about? I can't tell. Also I thought that Eliezer's examples were phrased in the hypothetical, and thus it'd be rationalizing others' beliefs/behavior, not one's own. I'm not sure to what extent rationalizing a conclusion and rationalizing one's own behavior are related. Introspectively, the defensiveness and self-justifying-ness inherent to the latter makes it a rather different animal.

Comment author: handoflixue 29 March 2012 09:01:42PM 3 points [-]

"Coming up with explanations" is a good skill.

"Coming up with a single, stupid explanation, failing to realize it is stupid, and then using it as an excuse to cease all further thought" is a very, very bad skill.

Thinking "well, but abandoning a sunk cost actually IS a negative future event" is smart IFF you then go "I'd be miserable for three days. How does that weigh against years spent in the program?"

It's very, very bad, however, if you stop there and continue to spend 2 years on a PhD just because you don't want to even THINK about those three days of misery.

I think understanding this dichotomy is critical. If you stop even thinking "well, but abandoning a sunk cost IS a negative future event" because you're afraid of falling in to the trap of then avoiding all sunk costs, then you're ignoring real negative consequences to your decisions.

Comment author: Strange7 30 March 2012 10:26:07PM 1 point [-]

(Sometimes I feel like hitting people with a wooden stick when they do this, but that act just expresses an emotion rather than having any discernible positive consequences.)

It would have the consequence of conditioning in the subject's mind an association between a particular thought process and being hit with a stick. Most people don't like being hit with sticks, so the association is likely to make them avoid that particular thought process. Do you not consider "teaching people to avoid a dangerously stupid thought process" a positive consequence?

Comment author: Bluehawk 04 April 2012 09:43:03PM *  3 points [-]

Actually they would associate the stick with a number of things, including but not limited to the stupid thought process. They would be quite likely to associate the stick with their encounter with Eliezer, and to their (failed) attempt to converse with and/or follow his thought processes. Mind: They associate the stick with all aspects of the attempt, not only with the failure.

It might work in a Master/Apprentice scenario where the stick-hitting-victim is bindingly pre-committed to a year of solitude with Stick-Happy!Eliezer in order to learn from him the art of Cognitive Kung Fu. This is the only scenario I can immediately visualize in which the stick-hitting victim would not immediately decide that Stick-Happy!Eliezer is a person they can get away with avoiding, and possibly with reporting to the police for assault.

EDIT01: This is assuming that the experiential sample size is 1.

Comment author: Strange7 06 April 2012 03:21:06AM 1 point [-]

I was only pointing out that arguably-positive consequences would be present. I agree that they most likely would not predominate outside controlled conditions, and the overall decision not to engage in spontaneous armed assault was a wise one.

Comment author: twanvl 29 March 2012 10:23:29AM 4 points [-]

"You shouldn't kill because it's the wrong thing to do" can be rescued as "Because then a person will transition from 'alive' to 'dead' in the future, and this is a bad event" or "Because the interval between Outcome A and Outcome B includes the interval from Fred alive to Fred dead."

Why the fancy words? This just seems like a complicated way of saying: "Because the person would then be dead. And that is bad".

Comment author: HonoreDB 30 March 2012 04:15:16PM *  4 points [-]

A human corpse poofing into existence from nowhere wouldn't be in itself a bad outcome. So we need to specify that the human was once alive.

An alternate phrasing might be "Because this would cause the person to die." But the word "die" is historically imprecise. Open-heart surgery stops a beating heart. Destructive uploading would cause brain death.

Comment author: wedrifid 30 March 2012 04:17:58PM 4 points [-]

A human corpse into poofing into existence from nowhere wouldn't be in itself a bad outcome.

Free food! (It doesn't count as cannibalism if the corpse has never been a member of your species!)

Comment author: AspiringKnitter 04 April 2012 03:21:32AM 12 points [-]

Does it have kuru? I'm only open to eating healthy human flesh in this scenario.

Also, if it poofs into existence from nowhere, is it creating matter out of nothing? It's creating something that still has usable energy in it, out of nothing? That could not only end world hunger and veganism, you might be able to use the newly-created corpses for fuel in some kind of power plant. Sure, you might have to go back to steam power to make it work, and sure, human bodies might not be the optimal fuel source, but if you're getting them from nowhere, that solves all our energy woes.

It also might make the planet gain mass, eventually, if you did enough of it for long enough. Hmm. Oh, well, you can use that to make spacecraft. Maybe. Or something.

That and blood pudding. And fertilizer.

I think actually, being able to poof human corpses into existence would be an improvement over the current state of affairs. It might still be sub-optimal, but it would be better.

Now I want to be able to poof human corpses into existence from nowhere. I also think maybe I should start a list of things I've said that I wouldn't have been able to predict that I would say if asked the day before.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 April 2012 08:46:41PM 8 points [-]

Less Wrong: Rationality, polyamory, cannibalism.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 05 April 2012 08:56:52PM 1 point [-]

...though the other order would be more challenging.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 05 April 2012 09:27:22PM 1 point [-]

Someone need to make an SCP based of this.

Comment author: Strange7 23 June 2012 10:03:10PM 0 points [-]

There already is, if you're willing to combine two: http://www.scp-wiki.net/scp-871 http://www.scp-wiki.net/scp-604

Comment author: TheOtherDave 30 March 2012 04:36:13PM 2 points [-]

Nobody said "free." The operational costs of corpse-poofing might be prohibitive.

Comment author: Nornagest 05 April 2012 08:59:38PM 0 points [-]

Well, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 April 2012 08:45:46PM 0 points [-]

Less Wrong: Rationality, polyamory, cannibalism.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 30 March 2012 04:34:54PM *  2 points [-]

"the person would then be dead" seems to pretty clearly imply that there was a person involved. In the case where a corpse poofs into existence from nowhere, there doesn't seem to have ever been a person involved. I conclude that "Because the person would then be dead" doesn't apply to the case where a corpse poofs into existence from nowhere. So I'm not sure why we would need to further specify anything here.

All of that said, the whole approach of counting deaths as negative utility seems to me to be rescuing the wrong part of the original nonconsequentialist claim in the first place.

It's clear that one consequence of increasing the human population from 1 billion people to 7 billion people is that many more people die per unit time, but it doesn't follow from that fact that we should reject increasing human population on consequentialist grounds. (It might be true that we should so reject it, but even if true it doesn't follow from that fact.)

It seems that the part we would want to rescue from a consequentialist POV is the idea that more life-years is good, so any act that reduces expected net lifeyears is bad... and also, perhaps, the idea that more life-years/person is good, so any act that reduces expected net lifeyears/person is bad.

This would also render all concerns about how we define "death" moot.

Comment author: FGonzalez 03 April 2012 04:28:43AM 0 points [-]

You still need to weigh emotional trauma caused by corpse-poofing.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 April 2012 09:01:31PM 2 points [-]

Eh, people would get used to it.

Comment author: MixedNuts 29 March 2012 02:17:39PM 4 points [-]

People being dead is a bad outcome. Killing people is a bad action. Consequentialism does not recognize bad actions, only actions that lead to bad outcomes.

Comment author: thescoundrel 26 March 2012 02:49:30PM 4 points [-]

To me, this comes down to what I am trying to learn as my anti-akrasia front kick: I cache the question "Why am I doing what I am doing?". While I lose some amount of focus to the question itself, I have gained key insights into many of my worst habits. For instance, my employer provides free soft drinks- I found that I would end up with multiple, open drinks at my desk. The cached question revealed I was using the action of getting a drink whenever I felt the need to stretch and leave my desk. Browsing reddit too much at work- cached question can catch it. Eventually, when I have affirmative answers for the question, it no longer even draws focus away from the task at hand- it is simply an itch that is easily scratched, as I know I am doing something that accomplishes a larger goal.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 24 March 2012 01:50:07AM *  9 points [-]

The novel part of Checking Consequentialism is the ability to discriminate "consequentialist reasons" from "non-consequentialist reasons" - being able to distinguish that "Because a PhD gets me a 50% higher salary" talks about future positive consequences, while "Because I don't want my years of work to have been wasted" doesn't.

It's possible that asking "At what time does the consequence occur and how long does it last?" would be useful for distinguishing future-consequences from non-future-consequences - if you take a bad-thing like "I don't want my work to have been wasted" and ask "When does it occur, where does it occur, and how long does it last?", you will with luck notice the error.

"Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure—
Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.
— Jeremy Bentham's mnemonic for the signs of "consequentialist reasons"

EDIT: It occurs to me that I should explain this more. Bentham was trying to popularize consequentialism and remind his readers of what sorts of things count as consequentialist reasons to prefer a particular outcome. Eliezer suggests that we should ask about the closeness in time and the duration of a consequence. Bentham mentions these ("speedy" and "long") but also includes some others:

  • Intensity — How great of a pleasure or benefit does this consequence bring?
  • Certainty — How sure are we that it will actually happen? Is it a relatively sure thing, or just a chance at one?
  • Fruitfulness — Will this pleasure be followed by others of the same kind, or will it exhaust itself?
  • Purity — Is this a "pure pleasure" or a "mixed blessing"? What are the downsides; what's the catch?
Comment author: HonoreDB 25 March 2012 04:45:51AM 3 points [-]

If the world were going to end right after I took an action, which action would I choose? (Alt: If everybody saw what choice I was about to make, but then circumstances changed and my decision turned out not to matter, what choice would I want to have made?)

Did answering that question feel the same as answering the actual question? If so, I'm not really thinking about consequences.

Comment author: jmmcd 26 March 2012 09:34:58PM *  1 point [-]

Did answering that question feel the same as answering the actual question?

I think you're onto something good here. Given any question, there are probably lots of hypothetical variations, like the world-ending or the exposure to everyone's judgement which you mention, which shouldn't make a difference but do, or should make a difference but don't. Maybe list a few more such circumstances and get the class to decide whether and why the variations make a difference.

Comment author: Drahflow 24 March 2012 05:23:26PM 3 points [-]

So... how would I design an exercise to teach Checking Consequentialism?

Divide the group into pairs. One is the decider, the other is the environment. Let them play some game repeatedly, prisoners dilemma might be appropriate, but maybe it should be a little bit more complex. The algorithm of the environment is predetermined by the teacher and known to both of the players.

The decider tries to maximize utilitiy over the repeated rounds, the environment tries to minimise the winnigs of the decider, by using social interaction between the evaluated game rounds, e.g. by trying to invoke all the fancy fallacies you outlined in the post or convincing the decider that the environment algorithm actually results in a different decision. By incorporating randomness into the environment algorithm, this might even be used to train consequentialism under uncertainty.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 24 March 2012 06:54:59AM *  3 points [-]

Here's a long-form exercise:

  1. Break up into small groups (2-5 people)
  2. Someone in each group, picked at random, presents an upcoming problem or decision.
    The other participant(s) ask questions to clarify the problem/decision.
    The problem/decision can be either real or imaginary, but if imaginary the presenter must come up with appropriately detailed answers to questions.
  3. Everyone collaborates in generating a list of possible solutions. Five is plenty.
  4. Everyone privately notes their preferred solution.
  5. Everyone collaborates on a list of expected consequences of each solution (with confidence intervals, if desired) and publicly announce which consequence-list they consider preferable.
  6. Everyone reveals their earlier preference from step 4, and if it's different from their preference from step 5 explains what changed.

This will probably take a fair amount of time.
The shorter-form version starts with steps 1-3 already done as example problems.
It probably helps if step 6 is a surprise.

Incidentally, I prefer "Compare Likely Consequences" to "Check Consequentialism" as a label for the skill.

Comment author: Eneasz 30 March 2012 06:10:57PM 5 points [-]

This wouldn't work as the only exercise, but could be useful if paired with another.

Presumably all students have other things they could be doing with their time, some of it possibly fun. Near the end of the lesson, perhaps just before the last exercise, with maybe 15-20 minutes left in the session, present this option: You can leave right now and get on with your day.

Obviously this is always an option, no one is required to stay against their will, but it's usually considered bad form and it's never given as an explicit option. Tell everyone to think about it for at least a full by-the-clock minute. What they could learn in the next 20 minutes vs what else they could do, and the consequences of both options. Then let them make their decision.

Afterwards both those who stayed and those who left may rethink their choice at least once and wonder if their choice was the best one. If nothing else, it could be memorable.

Comment author: handoflixue 03 April 2012 12:16:41AM 2 points [-]

That is an AWESOME way to grade the success of the lesson!! If half the audience leaves, then either the audience still isn't making good choices (in which case you clearly didn't teach them well), or they made the correct choice and your lesson genuinely isn't worth their time.

(Or you're teaching an audience that isn't ready for it, but that's still a failing in the teaching, just on a more administrative "select your audience better" level.)

Comment author: jimrandomh 24 March 2012 06:13:14AM 5 points [-]

I think of this as "looking effectward", one of the basic directions in concept space (opposite causeward, making it the inverse operation of asking "why").

Comment author: fubarobfusco 24 March 2012 04:11:58AM 4 points [-]

We did the Really Getting Bayes game at the Mountain View meetup this week. My impression of it was that the explanation was at first a little unclear, but that once we had gotten the sense of it, it was worthwhile.

One thing that I realized during the game was the degree to which I was using the availability heuristic to provide my likelihood ratios. For instance, one object I was given was either an electrical extension cord or an audio cable. In coming up with RGB likelihoods, I thought, "Electrical extension cords are usually black or white, hence not RGB; whereas audio cables are often RGB" — by using instances I could bring readily to mind to come up with this thought. My partner then told me the item was RGB, and I correctly predicted it as an audio cable. However, the electrical cord in his other hand was in fact orange, not black or white. While my availability heuristic worked for the purpose at hand, it clearly would have been wrong for other purposes.

Comment author: Academian 24 March 2012 08:44:26PM *  2 points [-]

In case this wasn't done, a physical demonstration of a game like this at first is important, with a concurrent verbal description to tag it for indexing: "Step 1: we do this", "Step 2: we do this." Showing beats telling alone. Verbal or written instructions are a low bandwidth form of communication that are better used for tagging/clarification of demonstration data (i.e. naming the steps while you do them) or error-correcting after a demonstration (i.e. people can look stuff up if they get confused).

Comment author: Elithrion 09 April 2012 07:11:16PM *  2 points [-]

As far as I can tell, most people find it fairly easy to think about others' decisions in consequential terms, but have a lot more trouble thinking about their own that way. So, a good technique to switch to consequential thinking is to imagine that instead of thinking about your own decision, you're thinking about a decision that someone in your exact situation is making. Consider what advice you'd want to give this person, and what choice he or she should make. Disassociating yourself from the decision like this should remove the influence of most things that would normally lead to you making bad decisions.

I'm not entirely sure what would be a good exercise to teach this. One thing that comes to mind is that it might be useful to ask participants to think of to give advice to their selves from five years ago (for example), and then to imagine themselves five years from now giving advice to their current selves.

Comment author: banana 28 March 2012 12:05:34AM 2 points [-]

Your check consequentialism sounds a lot like risk management. Risk is the effect of uncertainty on objectives (ISO 31 000). The risk management process involves indentifying risks, analysing how significant they are, and then treating the big ones so that they don't prevent you from attaining your objective. This is fairly straightforward to do. The difficult part is building a risk management culture where the risks are considered before making a decison, embarking on a project, etc. Just identifying the risks is often the big deal. Once you are aware that a risk exists you will probably deal with it. Sorry that I have not given you an activity, but perhaps I have given you a useful keyword to help your search.

Comment author: lukeprog 24 March 2012 05:49:16AM *  2 points [-]
Comment author: Matt_Simpson 24 March 2012 01:40:48AM 2 points [-]

It occurs to me that games with some significant strategic component might be useful for priming the "but what consequences does it have?" response. I'm thinking of games like Magic: the Gathering, Settlers of Catan, Risk, etc. (I'm sure the board game aficionados will have better examples than I). I say this because of personal experience with Magic players - as they get better at magic, they tend to get better at life. Well, some of them do. The others perhaps compartmentalize too much, so maybe this won't help with everyone.

In any case, my model for what would work is a relatively easy social game that allows a non-trivial number of actions with unclear consequences... unless you stop to think about them. Magic would be perfect... if it wasn't so complicated and if fantasy tropes didn't turn off a large segment of the population. Ideally the game would be something you create instead of something your subjects/clients may have played before.

I have no ideas for the actual game, but maybe this sparks someone else's imagination.

Comment author: Desrtopa 24 March 2012 02:09:10AM *  3 points [-]

If I'm thinking of games to reinforce consequentialism, my first thought is to use games with actual story involved; you don't lose points, or regions, or so on, you lose the lives of characters you're attached to, or their trust, or maybe you fail to prevent a genocide, etc. Things which people will be more likely to associate "this is a bad game outcome" with "this would have been a bad choice in real life."

The first solution that comes to mind for this is a video game, perhaps some kind of visual novel that features a large number of choices and forces the players to choose consequentially on pain of causing Bad Things to happen in the game. But I don't think this is actually a very good solution considering how much effort it takes to make a visual novel, which can be played in its entirety and will no longer offer a single new choice afterwards, and how many people are simply not interested in playing visual novels.

Maybe some sort of roleplay would be more feasible, at least you wouldn't be designing a whole video game for each scenario, but it still sounds like an awful lot of work.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 24 March 2012 04:34:39AM 8 points [-]

I sometimes try to get myself to make better decisions by pretending I'm a character in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. (E.g. "If you decide to stay on the couch because you're too lazy to work, turn to page 30.") Unfortunately, in the real books it's rare that enough information is given for you to make a really good decision, and the authors also appear to like messing with you by having good decisions blow up in your face.

So, maybe a similar book that actually gave you enough information to make a good decision and rewarded good decisions and punished bad ones?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 March 2012 06:04:57PM 7 points [-]

I sometimes try to get myself to make better decisions by pretending I'm a character in a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

This sounds like a more useful, more intuitive, much more widely applicable reification of my own method of "What Would Your TV Tropes Page Say?"

Comment author: sketerpot 25 March 2012 06:36:00AM *  6 points [-]

I don't know how many people have this issue, but I can't read Choose Your Own Adventure books without marking several past pages so I can rewind time, or try multiple branches, or safely find out what was hidden behind the venomous Venusian potted plant. Really, the only bound on it is that I eventually run out of fingers to mark my place, which constrains my time travel abilities to about four save-states. (In visual novels it's even worse, since there are enough actual save states that saving at anything that looks like a potentially significant branching point becomes viable. I've actually started using walkthroughs from GameFAQs to find out where I don't need to save, so I can stop fretting about making an irreversible decision. Trivial time travel is surprisingly addictive! What would the world be like if everyone could do it, I wonder?)

I really, really wish that this were a useful approach to life, but if it's possible to save and restore universe states, I have not been made aware of this. And obviously I haven't noticed anybody else doing it.

Comment author: Nornagest 30 March 2012 10:53:48PM *  2 points [-]

At least visual novels (well, the two or three of them that I've played) are pretty good about giving your decisions reasonable consequences based on what you know or should be able to infer. If I'm remembering my childhood well, Choose Your Own Adventure books have a nasty habit of dropping you into unwinnable states based on trite moral dilemmas, when they aren't dropping you into unwinnable states for no good reason at all. Not that life's fair in that regard either, but CYOA doesn't even give you the option of taking the steps that could ameliorate it.

So I've got to doubt the usefulness of this as a general decision procedure. Seems to me that it'd lead to overweighting conventional social mores and social risks in general, and underweighting the sort of fact-finding and risk minimization that actually works. Which, while not as immediately suboptimal as ignoring the "Beware of Yeti" sign or playing patty-cake with the toaster in the bathtub, is probably a lot more salient for a halfway sane decision-maker.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 March 2012 11:05:42PM 1 point [-]

This is one of the things I originally found disconcerting about the board game Arabian Nights. It's like anti-consequentialism: You would have options of things to do, and the option that seemed the most logical ("I'll give change to the beggar" or "I'll ignore the beggar") never gave as good of results as the craziest options ("I'll worship the beggar" or "I'll steal from the beggar", etc). I ended up getting the best results by choosing the weirdest option available.

Comment author: Dolores1984 26 May 2012 06:05:59AM 1 point [-]

That strategy doesn't ALWAYS work out poorly in weird life. If you go through life looking for opportunities to make your life weirder, it WILL be interesting, if nothing else. Of course, you might also get shot.

Comment author: tkadlubo 26 March 2012 09:08:31AM 1 point [-]

IMHO that's a really important point. You get a better grasp about consequences of your choice after trying several options and seeing how the consequences of different actions differ.

The best laboratory example of this is playing go on a computer. Typical go software records your games, and then lets you replay, play different variants, analyze when things went really bad after a silly move, etc. After a while you get a tree of diverging game records. In some you won, in others you lost. It's a good learning experience.

(disclaimer: I'm not sure how to un-compartmentalize this learning to be applicable in real life, not just in a game of go)

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 24 March 2012 08:12:42PM 6 points [-]

"What Would Your TV Tropes Page Say?"

The problem with TV Tropes is that they've been heavily primed with fictional evidence.

Comment author: JGWeissman 25 March 2012 06:55:17PM 10 points [-]

If you are influenced by the fictional evidence, your TV Tropes page will say Wrong Genre Savvy.

Comment author: CronoDAS 26 May 2012 05:44:34AM 0 points [-]
Comment author: Matt_Simpson 24 March 2012 03:30:00AM 1 point [-]

I have two interpretations of your idea, so I'll just say what I think of both.

1) Underlying, known, game mechanics with a story behind them involving role playing.

I like this because it gives the players something they can easily point to and say "look, consequences!" in the game mechanics while making the situation feel closer to reality. However, reality doesn't give you the mechanics by which it works, so this may not translate into real-life decision making as well. On the upside, this is easy to make into a social game - think DnD but with less magic and dice.

2) No game mechanics, just a "choose your own adventure" game.

The consequences are more nebulous in this version, which is both a positive and a negative. It's a positive because it forces more brainstorming of actual consequences, but it's a negative because that makes it harder to initially start thinking about the consequences of actions. It's also difficult to make this type of game vary from playthrough to playthrough.

Starting with a type 1) game and then moving to a type 2) game seems like it might take advantage of both types' strengths. Alternatively, there's really a continuum between the two types, so maybe somewhere closer to the middle is best.

Comment author: Desrtopa 24 March 2012 01:50:39AM 3 points [-]

I say this because of personal experience with Magic players - as they get better at magic, they tend to get better at life. Well, some of them do. The others perhaps compartmentalize too much, so maybe this won't help with everyone.

Really? I sure haven't noticed this. If anything from my own circle of acquaintances it looks like those who got better at life were the ones who stopped putting so much of their time and attention into card games.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 24 March 2012 01:57:13AM *  1 point [-]

Roughly, there's two populations - those who apply what they learned in magic (microeconomics, essentially) to life and those that don't. The latter tend to spend way to much time on card games. The former start saying things like "this event is pretty low EV for me, i think I better study/write that paper/work on that project/etc. instead."

In any case, as people get better at Magic, they get better at thinking about the consequences of their actions within the game. This seems like a natural stepping stone to thinking about consequences in all situations, though the trick is getting people to generalize it.

Comment author: gwern 25 March 2012 09:33:36PM 1 point [-]

The latter tend to spend way to much time on card games. The former start saying things like "this event is pretty low EV for me, i think I better study/write that paper/work on that project/etc. instead."

How would one distinguish between the scenario in which they begin to apply Magic-like thinking to their regular life and begin optimizing there, and the scenario in which ordinary diminishing marginal returns to playing Magic causes them to switch to the other activities?

Comment author: novalis 24 March 2012 05:04:50PM 2 points [-]

Maybe the easiest way to teach it is to teach how it applies to others. That is, train people to catch nonconsequential reasoning in arguments that others make, and then hope that they apply that to themselves. The easiest way to do that is by reflexively asking, "so what?"

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 24 March 2012 04:55:05AM 2 points [-]

By the way, if you don't mind my asking, once you've come up with your rationality curriculum what do you plan to do with it? Are you making inroads with whoever you would need to talk to to get this in a school curriculum, for instance?

Comment author: shokwave 24 March 2012 12:44:48PM 4 points [-]

I think they plan on running workshops or seminars, likely targeted at startup founders or business/consultant-type people handling large decisions (both from a capability-to-pay and a convinced-of-the-value point of view, this makes far more sense than school curriculums).

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 24 March 2012 07:53:28PM *  2 points [-]

What is the closest existing thing to this? How can we make friends with someone who is good at it? Are there any books about them doing it that we could read?

* Sales seminars
* Continuing education programs for businesspeople, e.g. evening MBAs
* Getting things done seminars, for organizations and the public
* Lean thinking, kaizen seminars
* Six Sigma seminars
* http://www.richdadeducation.com/ (kind of scammy)
* The Landmark Forum (even scammier)
* http://danariely.com/speaking/
* http://personalmba.com/ (note that ways to pay Josh other than buying his book are not immediately apparent, and that he is a Less Wrong user).
* http://thinkingthingsdone.com/ (also a less wrong user)
* Tony Robbins, firewalking, etc.

I would guess that large organizations are more willing to pay for live instruction than startup founders are. On the other hand, you wouldn't be able to suggest that they do anything that wasn't in the best interest of their employer like quit their job.

If organizational seminars are going to be a goal, it might not be a bad idea to start talking to relevant organizational folks to make sure you're making a product they actually want to buy. Jane Street could be an ideal first client, since they've got prestige you can use to sell other clients, EY has a pre-existing relationship with them, and they seem genuinely interested in improving their rationality. On the other hand, their rationality may be at a level where they don't think they could benefit from this sort of workshop, or targeting the workshop at them would mean developing a different set of materials. (But these "advanced" materials might appeal to clients who had already purchased and enjoyed the "basic" materials.)

The standard way to do this sort of B2B sale is to graduate to more and more important clients, since a lot of businesses will not buy a novel product unless some other businesses bought it and were happy with it. That's why getting and pleasing the first few clients is so important.

Robin Hanson has had a hard time selling prediction markets to businesses. Should we expect this to be more successful? I would guess yes, since it's not as explicitly targeted at replacing the people who might choose to implement it.

Comment author: Nominull 24 March 2012 03:05:19AM 2 points [-]

What, we're not even allowed to have identities now?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 24 March 2012 12:12:43PM *  10 points [-]

Identity shouldn't act as a normative consideration. "He's going to do X because he belongs to a reference class Y" may be a valid outside view observation, a way of predicting behavior based on identity. On the other hand, "I'm going to do X because I belong to a reference class Y" is an antipattern, it's a descriptive explanation, fatalist decision rule, one that may be used to predict, but not to decide. An exception is where you might want to preserve your descriptive identity, but then the reason you do that is not identity-based.

So you can have an identity, the way you can have a pair of gloves or a Quirrell, just don't consider it part of morality.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 24 March 2012 12:19:05PM *  6 points [-]

Identity shouldn't act as a normative consideration for an angel, maybe. For a human, "identity" is a pragmatic reification of cached complexes of moral conclusions that aren't immediately accessible for individual analysis. "Normative" is a misleading word here.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 25 March 2012 02:40:29AM 3 points [-]

I previously wrote a comment that seems relevant here:

How to translate identity-based decision making into values and/or beliefs seems non-trivial, and can perhaps be compared to the problem of translating anticipated-reward type decision making into preferences over states of the world or over math.

An agent that lets identity influence its decisions probably deviates from ideal rationality, but how to fix that? If we just excise the identity-based parts of its decision procedure without any compensation, that could easily make it worse off if for example it's CEV depends on its identity.

Comment author: Manfred 24 March 2012 04:32:24AM 4 points [-]

We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships.

Comment author: David_Gerard 24 March 2012 12:12:33PM 2 points [-]

Depends what the consequences of asserting one to yourself are.

Comment author: katydee 24 March 2012 06:33:51AM 5 points [-]
Comment author: Incorrect 24 March 2012 04:58:51AM *  4 points [-]

To become a true rationalist one must shed the trappings of personhood. The rationalist's mind has no goal except rationality itself; no thought except the Bayesian update.. Only once you are free of worldly concerns and the concept of autonomy may you see the light of Bayes.

edit: Sorry, I was joking. I thought I was being ridiculous enough for it to be obvious.

Comment author: [deleted] 24 March 2012 01:20:26PM 3 points [-]

The rationalist's mind has no goal except rationality itself

I thought it had the goal of maximizing expected utility.

Comment author: orthonormal 24 March 2012 04:17:12PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: Incorrect 24 March 2012 07:01:33PM 3 points [-]

Sorry, I was joking. I thought I was being ridiculous enough for it to be obvious.

Comment author: orthonormal 24 March 2012 07:05:04PM 3 points [-]

I should have remembered that you've been around for a while, but bear in mind that the joke is just the sort of Straw Vulcan reasoning that some new people think Less Wrong obviously must subscribe to.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 24 March 2012 09:12:27PM *  3 points [-]

'Twas completely obvious to me. I mean seriously, "light of Bayes".

Comment author: [deleted] 11 April 2012 04:48:17PM 1 point [-]

Poe's law applies!

Comment author: fubarobfusco 24 March 2012 07:07:06AM -2 points [-]

Incorrect indeed.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 24 March 2012 04:47:23AM *  1 point [-]

I remember reading about an experiment performed by behavioral economists where person A divides some cash and person B either accepts their division and gets their allocated share of the money or rejects it and neither party gets their allocated share. You could say the consequentialist solution is to always accept the division of money, which most folks don't do, so this could make a good trial exercise. On the other hand, if person A is someone person B is going to have repeated interactions with, one could argue that the social capital of training person A to divide things fairly might be worth forgoing cash... So maybe it wouldn't work in a scenario where the class meets again and again? (Unless things were anonymized somehow...)

There is also the Newcomb's Problem aspect to this, where having taught the class about consequentialism will make it appear as though you have made everyone who is Person B worse off.

Reading up on experiments behavioral economists have done in general seems like it could be a good source of ideas.

Comment author: orthonormal 24 March 2012 04:19:58PM *  6 points [-]

I predict that if a stranger tried a one-shot Ultimatum game against Eliezer with a 99-1 split in the stranger's favor, EY would refuse it on TDT grounds. Thus any person who knows Eliezer subscribes to TDT wouldn't offer a manifestly unfair split to him.

Comment author: ciphergoth 24 March 2012 11:18:02AM 3 points [-]

Right, this article appears on the surface to endorse causal decision theory, which we know Eliezer doesn't in fact endorse. Mostly that's fine, but there are occasions where CDT will make the wrong call, such as the examples you point out.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 24 March 2012 07:06:46AM 4 points [-]

I remember reading about an experiment performed by behavioral economists


Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 24 March 2012 05:18:30AM 3 points [-]

I can't help but think that the best way to actually get people to be consequentialist is similar to the way to actually get people to be atheists: convince them that all the cool kids are consequentialist. This probably contributed to me becoming more consequentialist, in the form of reading about behavioral economics studies where people did silly and irrational things and wanting to not be one of the silly and irrational ones.

Comment author: Vaniver 24 March 2012 05:33:58AM 1 point [-]

You could say the consequentialist solution is to always accept the division of money, which most folks don't do, so this could make a good trial exercise.

I would strongly recommend against going this direction. Consequentialism is about methodology, not particular results. As soon as you say "the consequentialist always accepts" the clever students will get a funny look on their face, as they try to cost out and compare the immediate gain and long-term loss.

Consider Kohlberg's stages of moral development, which doesn't care about the conclusion drawn but does care about the stated justification for the conclusion.

Comment author: KateGladstone 04 April 2012 03:39:10AM 1 point [-]

Possible exercise: Assume that you have no source of income except what you can beg, steal, or find ownerless/abandoned. Assume that you have a friend in similar straits (we'll call this person Paul Poor), and that both you and Paul know of a very wealthy person (whom we'll call Richard Rich). One day, you find — apparently abandoned in the street — a loaded gun. Think of various reasons for you to use the loaded gun to force Richard to give money to Paul. Which of these reasons are non-consequentialist, and why? Now think of various reasons for you to NOT use the loaded gun to force Richard to give money to Paul. Which of these reasons are non-consequentialist, and why? Next step: think of various reasons to use the gun to force Richard to give money to you. Which of these reasons are non-consequentialist, and why? Finally: think of various reasons NOT to use the gun to force Richard to give money to you. Which of these reasons are non-consequentialist, and why? In case you use this as an exercise, and/or wish to contact me for any reason, my name is Kate Gladstone and my e-mail address is handwritingrepair@gmail.com

Comment author: thomblake 03 April 2012 06:17:50PM 1 point [-]

Exercise: Notice results.

Example: (participants A and B)

A: What would be the consequences if you told everyone you were not wearing any underwear?
B: writing it down: I would be really embarrassed for the rest of the day, and everyone would laugh at me so I wouldn't want to show my face.
A: Go do that.
B: gives paper to A, does it
(some time later) A: What were the consequences of telling people...?
B: not reading the earlier paper I was a little embarrassed at the time, but people laughed so it was okay. Also, one person hit on me.
A: shows paper to B
They talk about the difference between the predictions and what actually happened.
Instructor (optional): See, this and this were not physical consequences of the action, so that's why your predictions were off-base.


2 participants. A asks B to do some action, ideally somewhere in the range that is emotionally-loaded but not completely inappropriate. B has to write down the consequences of that action (perhaps out to the end of the day / session), give the paper to A for safekeeping, and perform the action. Later, A asks B to describe what the consequences actually were and checks them against the written prediction. Ideally, an instructor points out any listed consequences that aren't 'legitimate', and explains how they could have been improved.


We feel differently about consequences after the fact, so independently checking our predictions about consequences against our memories of consequences should highlight any 'illegitimate' consequences listed.


This might just be an exercise to combat Impact Bias, or other biases related to affective forecasting.

Comment author: Benquo 03 April 2012 03:23:30AM *  1 point [-]

On a high level, practice asking: If I do X, what does the world look like 5 minutes from now? An hour from now? A day from now? etc.

If I don't do X, what does the world look like 5 minutes from now? An hour from now? A day from now? etc.

So, let's take the PhD example. Try talking about it without using the word "because".

If I decide to finish my PhD, 5 minutes from now I feel OK. An hour from now I'm eating dinner. A day from now I'm grinding away at my dissertation. A month from now, I'm grinding away at my dissertation. A year from now, maybe I'll have finished my PhD, and I'll be on the job market. A decade from now, I'll likely have a research job in my field, or I'll be teaching, or I'll have abandoned my field and done something else.

If I don't decide to finish my PhD, 5 minutes from now I feel like a total failure, I wasted so much time. An hour from now I'm stuffing my face with junk food to deal with the stress of figuring out what to do with my life. A month from now, I've done something totally different with my life. (got a job? started a business? backpacked through Europe?) A year from now, something similar. A decade from now, who knows?

To make it vivid, ask people to talk about a choice they themselves face, and weigh the pros and cons in terms of likely future world-states. Each time you talk about a consequence, you have to mention what is going on if they chose differently, at the same distance in the future. Everyone else's job is to call them out if they go off track.

Comment author: handoflixue 03 April 2012 12:00:12AM 1 point [-]

It seems to me that since it's easier to notice it in other people, starting with illustrative examples would be good. This allows you to establish the basic idea, and establish a model in the audience's head. I'd suggest fictional examples would be easier to come up with, but using real examples might add veracity and help the audience engage. You could possibly even invite a few audience members up to discuss things where they might be stuck, but that runs in to the usual risks of audience examples and would probably take a fair amount of time.

Once you've established the basic idea, I think you then need to transform the idea by getting them to apply it to themselves. Relying on the audience to all have a situation where this skill applies, and one which is a good learning example, seems foolish. Instead, I'd suggest a game where you lead someone to get stuck in a commitment or trend, and then throw them at a situation where they have to break that trend to succeed.

A simple example would be to pick an audience member, and tell them to answer each question you ask "yes or no". You ask a bunch of questions that all produce an immediate, unthinking 'yes' response, and then ask them one where a 'yes' would be humorously inappropriate.

"Do you understand the idea?" "Of course" "It needs to be a yes or no. Understand?" "Yes" "Good. Is the sky blue?" "Yes" "Are dogs a mammal?" "Yes" [...] "Have you mastered Consequentialism?" "Yes" pause, cue audience laughter "Oh. No."

I'm entirely certain one could come up with both better and more complex examples, but I think that serves to illustrate the basic idea. Consequentialism suggests that putting more work in to examples probably isn't wise unless someone suggests this is a good idea and would like to see me flesh it out more :)

Comment author: Dmytry 02 April 2012 09:45:56AM *  1 point [-]

This is the sort of in-person, hands-on, real-life, and social exercise that didn't occur to me, or Anna, or anyone else helping, while we were trying to design the Bayes's Theorem unit. Our brains just didn't go in that direction, though we recognized it as embarrassingly obvious in retrospect.

There's something important here. Problem solving. That's the use of intelligence that got us to the Moon. That's the use of intelligence which gave us Bayes theorem. And the best way you can spend your time is focussing on this. It does not help you a whole lot if you can very rationally pick between two ways of teaching the students, if you cant generate those ways. For success, one needs, first and foremost, problem solving abilities. There may be general intelligence factor, but there is also a lot of very high IQ people who are comparatively bad at free form problem solving, and even at fairly basic combinatorial things like fitting most items into a box carefully so they won't break when transported. The rationality may help you de-bias yourself wrt which items you consider more and less 'important' - you may be able to rid yourself of bias of how dear an item is to you - but it won't so much help you process the immense number of combinations and generate the best one, and your packing will still be much less effective than the packing of someone irrational who puts a nearly indestructible object that is dear to them on the top, if they are just a bit better at processing the huge solution space.

Comment author: epigeios 05 April 2012 11:09:54AM *  1 point [-]

Simple left-brain vs right-brain. The problem you refer to isn't that hard to fix, it's just that very few people know about it. Reading through the sequences will, in most cases, make people want to exercise their minds in daily life. Eventually, the right brain will activate despite the left-brain dominance of english-speaking culture.

to put it simply. The left brain's job is to process individual points of data in series as a pattern. The right brain's job is to process all points of data in parallel as a chaotic fractal flow.

Granted, most of the sequences on here are about how to use the left brain more efficiently. And in scientific society as a whole, right-brain concepts are generally shunned except by the few people who already know about them.

However, at the very least, Eliezer himself is capable of using his right brain, even if he thinks that the general problem of society is solvable by increasing efficiency of left-brain usage. The result of this is that right-brain concepts are hidden in the sequences. Anyone who reads through deeply enough will start to be influenced by this.

But yes, I also partially agree. The fact that Eliezer tried to explain wisdom as modified pattern recognition from left-brain intelligence in HPMOR shows that either Dumbledore is hiding his wisdom, or Eliezer doesn't know what the right brain is capable of.


I'm looking at the long term here. This website is a good stepping stone into right-brain usage by left-brained people (it is MUCH more right-brained than standard education), and hopefully also has the ability to help right-brained people learn how to use their left brain. If nothing else, Eliezer is seriously trying to improve the functionality of the world. That means that some time in the future, he will have to learn about how the right brain works. And until then, I'm gonna keep trying to plant the seeds for this.

When I have a full, concrete understanding with the ability to really explain it in-depth to a left-brain dominant person, I will post my solutions on this website. Until then, the game you seem to be trying to play is impossible to win.

Comment author: Dmytry 05 April 2012 11:40:35AM *  0 points [-]

I do think theres truth to here being two ways to using the thought but I don't think its simply one side vs other side in humans. The left side (of right-handed individuals) has the speech centre, and thus is more involved in process of making sequences of chirps that achieve particular social purpose, and subsequently less involved in the decision making or reasoning.

In the split brain patients, when left side is presented with chicken, and right side is presented with snow, and the right side picks shovel as related, the left side explains that the shovel is for cleaning chicken shit. The left side doesn't have slightest clue why shovel was chosen, nor does have any need-to-know what so ever (even when the corpus callosum is present) as the optimum chirps are entirely dependent to listener and independent of motivation. The left side still has to employ massively parallel process to generate the chirps to the specific purpose - that's the only way brain can do it - clearly there's a lot of parallel processing required for coming up with an explanation how the shovel is related to chicken - but the chirps themselves are sequential in nature and so it appears as if there is some sort of serial process going on. It even looks like some sequences of chirps are consequences of other sequences of chirps, when the chirp making rule requires them to be produced in that order.

Then the people here have trouble with 'procrastination', 'akrasia', and the like, which is inevitable outcome of the disconnect between decision making (which decides not to do something) and speech synthesis (which talks of wanting something), and are generally a case of the pirate ship's parrot complaining of the weather. Letting the part-brained parrot take over the pirate ship is generally a bad idea, even if the parrot is very extensively trained. For one thing, the part-brained parrot doesn't know one thing about navigation and can't read the maps or charts, which are non verbal in nature. I would guess the parrot take-over corresponds to psychiatric disorders.

Arguably one of the best scientists, Albert Einstein, has lacked the parrot portion of the brain entirely.

Furthermore, an unusually high fraction of accomplished people (e.g. presidents) are left handed, which is a proxy for unusual brain architecture that doesn't implement standard clueless parrot. The evolution may easily have over-fitted us to some very specific situation where the speech is just noise, entirely unrelated to reasoning (which is the case for all smaller brained animals).

Comment author: epigeios 10 April 2012 03:17:01PM *  0 points [-]

The left side still has to employ massively parallel process to generate the chirps to the specific purpose.

What makes you say that? In your example, the left brain has 2 inputs, and only needs to find a plausible connection between the two.

Although, in hindsight, You're right. The brain uses many neurons in parallel no matter what or where it is processing.

I will now proceed to twist my words to attempt to better communicate what I mean. In reality, i spoke too hastily, generalized too greatly, and still obviously don't know the correct words to use to communicate my partial, incomplete theory to a left-brain dominant culture.

If we take what I stated for the two "jobs" of the two brains:

The left brain's job is to process individual points of data in series as a pattern. The right brain's job is to process all points of data in parallel as a chaotic fractal flow.

Then, take "individual points of data in series as a pattern" and "all points of data in parallel as a chaotic fractal flow", and call each of those 2 quotes a complete concept or set, labeled A and B respectively. Then, as if putting grammar in the correct/different location, say that the left brain processes set A, and the right brain processes set B; where "processes" specifies neither parallel nor sequential, but implies "however the brain does it". If what I stated is grammatically edited to mean this, then it fits more closely with what I intended and satisfies your examples (as far as I can tell).

To describe in a different, probably better way, I consider the right brain as being used to build interacting, interweaving probability clouds of all data even remotely related to the subject (more neuron connections = more remote). The result of this is sections and points of higher or lower concentration. I then consider the left brain to take this information, and determine the direct connections between the important pieces, especially how they directly relate to an initial goal (more neuron connections = more and farther-reaching direct connections). The combination of the two thus gives the person the decision on the "best" course of action. And of course, this process can be iterated, as well as be initiated by the left brain's direct connections instead of the right brain's probability clouds.


I just noticed an interesting difference between my concepts and your concepts.

decision making (which decides not to do something) and speech synthesis (which talks of wanting something). And I just further (after quoting) figured out a way it relates to left-right brain difference.

I had thought of decision making as being positive (deciding "to do" instead of "not to do"). I think, however, that this is once again the difference between right brain and left brain (respectively). What I mean by this can be summarized and generalized (or analogized) as the difference between the concept of "syntropy" (a receiving antenna) and entropy (a projecting antenna).

Likewise, I thought of speech synthesis as, instead of "wanting something", "choosing something", as in "cutting out everything else". Negative instead of positive. This obviously relates to what I think of right vs left, but I'm not sure exactly how; especially since you input that the left brain has the speech center (I didn't know that).

Comment author: handoflixue 03 April 2012 12:03:18AM 0 points [-]

rationality[...] won't [...] help you process the immense number of combinations and generate the best one

Intelligence is the lens which sees it's own flaws. This is a flaw. See that clearly, and you should be able to fix it.

In fact, when I see intelligent people fail at such situations, I immediately want to drag them on to LessWrong and have them read all the sequences, because somewhere in there (and I'm not quite sure where), I figured out all sorts of incredible techniques for actually dealing with exactly that.

Comment author: Dmytry 03 April 2012 07:31:21AM *  1 point [-]

Did you magically transform your life to 10x the awesome? There are solutions that make it so. They are incredibly hard to arrive at, but there are.

Look at what people do here. Spending very non-trivial fraction of the time thinking about problems with very narrowly defined range of solutions, usually below 10. I have suspicion that such trains you to fail the real-world situations where you deal with > possible solutions. People do love familiar approaches, meaning, in those cases they'll latch on <10 most obvious solutions that come up instantly or were chosen by others, then rationally choose among those, because that's what the methods here deal with, that's what they tried to improve. Of course it is better to choose the best one out of easily available solutions, than not the best one, but that doesn't get anyone any heaps of utility; there are some cases where it looks like it does (market speculation), but it still does not as the system is multiplicative, follows specific sort of power law distribution, and one of the fools with coin tosses is still expected on the top, and still, coming up with methods for trading is a problem with enormous number of solutions.

Comment author: handoflixue 03 April 2012 08:49:06PM 0 points [-]

Did you magically transform your life to 10x the awesome?

I have trouble imagining what an entire magnitude of awesomeness would even look like. I tend to intuitively model the question as "what percentage of your life are you satisfied with?" and the answer has almost always been "more than 10% of it", so you can't multiply by ten in this context. I'm not really sure of a way to phrase the question where a 10x multiplier is meaningful.

Look at what people do here. Spending very non-trivial fraction of the time thinking about problems with very narrowly defined range of solutions, usually below 10.

My area of greatest gain is self-awareness, dealing with various mental illnesses/abnormalities, and dealing with relationships (friends, work, romantic). One of my friends recently commented "I run in to the issue when meeting new people - there's thousands of things I could say, and I can't figure out where to start!" and my immediate thought was "Oh! I learned how to fix that problem from reading the sequences."

In general, before LessWrong, I could handle basic "shut up and multiply" without any trouble - a problem with only a few solutions was generally trivial. Where I ran in to issues was exactly that "huge solution space", and that is where LessWrong has really helped me.

I have definitely noticed that the sequences seem to be surprisingly well written for a wide range of rationality levels - they seem to help you build skills whether you have a little bit or a lot of rationality coming in to this. A lot of what I've personally gained from the sequences is simply that "aha!" moment of the final missing piece of the puzzle clicking in to place, because a lot of this is stuff I've spent years thinking about.

The other big thing I've gained from LessWrong is having very coherent explanations that I can share with others. It makes it very easy to quickly get one of my friends trained up sufficiently to help me bounce around ideas and come up with solutions to problems that are stumping me.

Comment author: twentythree 30 March 2012 06:36:26PM 1 point [-]

Split the class into groups and get each group working on something they all will easily become invested in. I'm thinking have them spend 10 minutes creating/building something as a group, and make it a competition (bragging-rights only) to solidify the investment.

Before anyone has enough time to finish, offer $100 to the first person to destroy their group's creation. (Obviously, it would be best if doing so could be done in a quick motion: like if they were building a large tower with jenga blocks or something.)

After 5 seconds, pause and have each person self-evaluate: did they Check Consequentialism? Then, group up again to rescue consequentialist reasons to act/not act from non-consequentialist reasons for doing so. i.e. "I don't want to do selfish things" -> "I don't want to look selfish in front of my peers".

Comment author: handoflixue 03 April 2012 12:12:57AM 2 points [-]

"Doing this would be rude and harm my social standing" is a perfectly reasonable criteria.

Consequentialism should point out that if they offer to split the $100 evenly, and everyone else in the group is somewhat rational, then they've avoided that consequence (and, as a bonus, prevented some jerk from knocking it over and keeping the $100)

Does remind me of an example from my childhood, though: http://lesswrong.com/lw/b4f/sotw_check_consequentialism/67uf

Comment author: maia 28 March 2012 02:47:01PM 1 point [-]

What kinds of exercises you use to teach a skill like "checking consequentialism" should probably be placed in the greater context of a rationality curriculum. You have to know where the students are coming from at each step.

That said-- making the assumption that the students are already familiar with the theory of heuristics and biases, and just need to learn how to apply them-- I think most of these can be taught with similar kinds of hypotheticals and problems.

For checking consequentialism, you might want to focus on problems involving sunk costs. To illustrate how sunk costs can affect how someone automatically approaches a problem, split students up into groups (they will probably produce worse results as a group, which is good for this part) and give them all similar problems, with the initial conditions modified slightly. Example: "John has been working on his PhD for X years, and expects to finish in Y. He knows W and Z facts about how his degree will benefit him." Modify parts of the problem, X and Y especially, to try and prime their System 1 for a different result. Have them make a decision quickly. Reconvene, discuss the problem, point out the issues with sunk costs and why the groups did or didn't reach a different result.

This is just a starting activity; it could be followed by having students do more hypotheticals individually. The instructor needs to give a lot of feedback on the problems as they go, asking students key questions that they might not have thought of, so they'd ideally be well trained in a) rationality and b) drawing out student thinking.

Ideally the exercises wouldn't require too much instructor skill, though, so I'll think about this some more.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 25 March 2012 01:25:03PM 1 point [-]

Beware of motivated stopping. If someone wants to do A, because B will happen, that is only the beginning. There are several directions it's worth exploring further, with one person exploring and another prompting them with questions such as these:

Will B actually happen (or be more likely to), given A?

What makes B a desired consequence? Some further consequence that it leads to? Some larger purpose for which B is a means? Or is B terminally desirable?

At some point one has to stop, but the very first consequences one thinks of may not be that point.

Comment author: Zaine 24 March 2012 08:00:17AM *  1 point [-]

Practicing this could be fun in pairs, dissecting an acted out scenario. Two instructors act out previously conceived scenarios, with a Influencer and a Reactor. At some point, 'twill be implied the Reactor wishes to act on the scenario itself or the knowledge presented therein; the scenario will then halt, and the students put in pairs to brainstorm the beneficience and maleficience of possible actions. Each student will take turns (which can be timed) being the brainstormer and the consequentialist (utilitarian?); of course the pairs can have different functions, like as suggested. These just serve to outline the general idea.

For example:
INFLUENCER: Good day, sir! On your way to the place we are going?
REACTOR: Why yes, I am! However odd you too shall be going there; I wish we shall fall upon their fancy!
INFLUENCER: Oh dear! The Gods are weeping once more!
REACTOR: Dear me! I prefer not to be wet, and so I always carry an umbrella upon my person!
INFLUENCER: Indeed, I see it now grasped in your hand! Whatever shall you do? Poor me, if only I were so prepared....

BRAINSTORMER: He opens his umbrella, and uses it himself.
CONSEQUENTIALIST: The umbrella protects him, but not his companion to any significant degree. (The companion must dodge the edges so as not to be poked in the eye, and may be offended.) The umbrella may wetten things once inside(, and earn him the ire of some people by whom he'd rather not be thought ill.)
Both would then consider the merits and, as outlined by the parentheticals, disadvantages of these outcomes, moving on to the brainstormer's next suggestion afterward.

After each has taken a turn, the instructors would go around the room asking each pair their brainstormed actions, their potential consequences, and the positive and negative aspects of each; as Vladimir suggests, these aspects can ("should") be relativized against each other - if they do relativize, they would state the pair's preferred action and its predicted consequence. The instructors could reinforce correct applications, and constructively criticize incorrect applications, with care taken to not put any pairs down too much (using softeners, etc.: "That's quite creative! We're glad you thought of that, this is an excellent example of how even the best consequentialists can go wrong...").

Comment author: Incorrect 24 March 2012 02:26:31AM 1 point [-]

Identity - "I'm the sort of person who belongs in academia."

This could also be caused be confusing correlation with causation.

Comment author: adamzerner 02 December 2013 04:14:58AM 0 points [-]

The best idea I have for teaching rationality (in the general sense) is to:
1) explain the concepts to people (ie. explain the idea of consequentialist thinking, and the rationale behind it).
2) have people write essays about thoughts/ideas they have (they should be excited to write these essays), and then peer review the essays, pointing out errors in rationality. Like not supporting claims with evidence. Then have an instructor go over the essays and the evaluations to make sure they did a good job.

Also, I think what you're doing right now - crowd sourcing - is probably the best thing for idea generation.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 April 2012 04:37:40PM 0 points [-]

A simple 4 Step Process:

Step 1) write down a list of the consequences

Step 2) => take this list and eliminate all descriptions of actions

Step 3) Eliminate indirect descriptions of what someone has done: honor, merit, guilt, virtue (and all their derivations); this includes personality descriptions like: beeing a good friend, winner, loser, hero, asshole, slut, murderer

Step 4) Eliminate all "consequences" that are defined as the fulfillment or not-fulfillment of plans/goals

Comment author: buybuydandavis 08 April 2012 09:47:54PM *  0 points [-]

"What positive future events does this action cause?"

When reading this, Thomas Sowell's 3 questions came to mind.

  • Compared to what?
  • At what cost?
  • What data do we have?

Without identifying the other options, even identifying something as "the cause" becomes problematic. And it is always problematic because "the cause" is generally used as "that event which I assign the credit or blame to".

If you're only looking for the positive events, you're obviously biasing your search. You should be looking for all consequences first, good, bad, and neutral. Further, by encouraging people to start looking for either the good or bad, they're starting off with a position and attitude first, then the reality of events second.

Finally, you have to consider the data you have to back up your claims of the likely consequences. What's your confidence in the model?

Checking consequentialism should answer Sowell's three basic questions -

  • Compared to what? ** What are my options?
  • What data do you have? ** What probabilities do I assign to possible states of the universe for each state?
  • At what cost? ** What value do I assign to these different states?

(What am I wrong with the asterisks? I wanted my versions of each of his questions to have an extra level of nesting.)

All these things come out automatically if you follow the mathematical formalism for decision theory. That would be my suggestion - have people work out an everyday problem in the formalism of probabilistic decision theory. Show them that the problem has already been solved, and they just have to turn the crank.

Comment author: Yuu 08 April 2012 12:46:08PM *  0 points [-]

One possible exercise:

  1. In pairs or in groups one person is asked by instructor, what he or she wants to buy in near future. For example, the person wants new digital camera.

  2. Then group should calculate full cost of this camera, including all accessories and expendables.

  3. After that people in the group suggest alternative activities and expenses, based on this full cost of digital camera, what the person can buy instead of this camera. For example, the person can buy a bike and ride around, instead buy a camera and take pictures around.

  4. Then the person, who wants this camera, can check all alternatives and find the best, Maybe the group can also discuss, why one alternative is better, and another one is worse. For example, will digital camera gives more pleasure, comparing with skateboard? Or usage of some of the proposed items will give more physical exercises and more health to the owner, instead of using another one.

  5. When one person from the group will find some explanations or answers to the questions group discuss now, other people should check the rationality of this explanation: is it rational thinking, or is it bias? And one person can also check the reasoning of another person in the group in any time.

Another exercise: Group watch or read some news, proposed by instructor, then analyse the news. Group should discuss the following questions:

  • Is it possible, that the event from the news was really happened?
  • What details of this event prevent it from happening? What details show, that it looks like the genuine event?
  • If we trace this event to the future and to the past, can we find the confirmations or refutations of the discussed event?
Comment author: Lycia 07 April 2012 11:34:41AM 0 points [-]

Possible exercise: Take one decision, two groups. First group works out all the details of what would happen in either case, best case scenario. Second group works out all the details what would happen in either case, worst case scenario. Don't be afraid to get creative or exaggerate, have fun with it. Then write down the key points, and both groups make their decision.

Then discuss both options between groups, being more realistic.

Is there a difference in approach? Reflect as a group, what have you learned? Will you use this in future decisions? If you have time, try this again but reverse group roles, with a different decision.

Bigger decisions work better, as they have larger consequenses. Try investing as a multinational, or use a current political topic. Controvercy works well if you wish to teach critical thinking without judgement.